A Sermon about Suffering

Join with me in suffering for the Gospel.
Well, this is not one of our uplifting texts, is it?  
Join me in suffering for the Gospel.  
Most of us would really rather not spend our time suffering, 
at least not voluntarily.  
We know there is suffering, of course, 
and we know that suffering 
is something we all will probably have to endure
                                       at some point in our lives, 
but we don’t wish to choose it.   
We may even come to church in order to alleviate our suffering - 
to be uplifted in song and prayer 
and to be held ourselves in the company of friends 
and fellow pilgrims on the Christian journey.
We would rather pray for the suffering to end.  
Because of course we know that suffering 
goes on in the world every day.  
There seems to be no end of suffering, in fact.  
And so we pray that God will heal 
the suffering of others 
and heal our own suffering and grief 
over our physical pains, our psychological pains, 
our social pains.  
We wish that God would take them on 
and take them away.
We would rather not choose to suffer.
I believe, however, that when we suffer, 
God suffers with us.  
We are never alone in our pain, our grief, 
our confusion, our shame.  
God is with us when we suffer; 
we do not suffer alone.  
And Jesus knows our suffering, 
having suffered himself. 
Jesus chose to suffer.  
Do we have to choose to suffer as well?
If we’re about doing God’s work in the world, 
then yes, I think we are to choose to suffer.  
And here are a couple of stories 
to explain what I mean by that.
This week at the Clergy Conference at Camp Mikell 
we heard reports from several people.  
One of them was from a woman who heads up 
a nonprofit organization called Street Grace 
that works with churches 
and other community partners 
to stop human trafficking in the Atlanta area. 
She told us that more than 300 young girls 
are sold every month 
several times a day, 
not only in Atlanta 
but in the surrounding counties, 
including right here in Rockdale.  
She told us that some of these girls 
are only ten or eleven years old.  
She told us how a few years ago 
she had been the facilitator 
of a group for women drug addicts 
and how gradually she had learned 
that most of those women 
had been the victims of child 
trafficking when they were young.  
She told us how she saw their suffering 
and how she joined in their suffering 
for their lost childhoods, for their lost selves, 
for their lost lives.  
She told us how she suffered grief 
and then anger 
and finally took action 
to stand up for these young girls 
and find ways of identifying and eradicating 
this scourge from our midst.
For the Gospel, she joined in their suffering.....
Another report we heard was from an Episcopal priest 
Army chaplain who serves at the Pentagon.  
His job is to work with the small group of chaplains 
who visit and counsel 
and otherwise make themselves available 
to the families who travel to Dover, Delaware, 
to meet the remains of their loved ones 
who were killed in Iraq or Afghanistan 
when their bodies arrive in this country 
in flag-draped coffins.  
He told us about how the suicide rate 
for soldiers and veterans continues to rise; 
he told us about how the divorce rate 
among soldiers and their husbands 
and wives 
keeps going up as military personnel
are called up again and again for multiple tours
and relationships become harder and harder 
to maintain; 
he told us about the soldiers being treated 
psychologically for post-traumatic stress syndrome
and physically for brain trauma 
caused by repeated concussions 
from being near explosions.  
He asked us to pray for him, to pray for his chaplains, 
to pray for the families of the dying and the dead, 
and especially to pray for the men and women 
in service to our country who are suffering.  
He told us about the multi-faith prayer chapel 
that was built at the Pentagon in the space where the plane hit
and about how so many people use that chapel 
for prayer every week and sometimes daily -
Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Protestants,
Hindus, Jews and Muslims - 
and pointed out that praying for peace 
was something every group felt called to do. 
He asked us to join in those prayers. 
And as he told us about these stories, 
about these facts and figures, 
about these people who suffer, 
I saw the suffering on his face.  
For the Gospel, he has joined those soldiers 
and their families in their suffering.  
And he was calling us to join him in his 
and to join them in theirs as well.
Because the Gospel, the good news, 
is that God loves us and wants us to be saved 
and also God loves others and wants them to be saved.  
God loves the outcast and the beaten down 
and the grieving and the traumatized 
and the addicts 
and the ones who are abused and thrown away
and God wants them to be saved.  
But right now they are suffering in this world 
and we are called to join in their suffering 
so that we might be moved by it 
and will rise up and do something 
besides watch and shake our heads.  
We are called to stand with God 
as God stands with those who suffer.
A couple of weeks ago, I quoted William Temple, 
who served as Archbishop of Canterbury back in the early 1940‘s,
who said that the Church is the only society 
that exists for the benefit 
of those who are not its members.  
The church exists to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, 
to uphold the needy not only through prayer 
but through physical support.  
By actually feeding the hungry and clothing the naked
and giving cups of cold water to the parched 
and visiting those in prison 
even as we ask God to remember the hungry 
and thirsty and the naked and the imprisoned 
and not let them be forgotten by God, either, 
as they have not been forgotten by us.
But we cannot hear these and other stories of grief 
and pain and suffering and simply shake our heads.  
If we say we love God then we must love God’s people.
Perhaps only by suffering with them 
will we be moved to respond to their suffering. 
This is the work we do for the Gospel - 
this is the mission of the church, 
to bring good news, 
to respond to the suffering of others.
We don’t have to look very far to find suffering.  
Some of us here are suffering from grief, 
from loss, from lack, from anxiety, 
from sicknesses of all kinds.  
And I am impressed 
with how the folks in this parish 
respond to one another’s suffering.  You all visit one another, 
send cards to one another, 
pray for one another, 
care for one another to an extent that amazes me.  
This is how we uphold one another 
and manifest Christ’s love for us by loving others.
But there are those beyond these walls who need care as well.  
If the Church is not to be just a social club 
then it is both the Church’s obligation and joy 
to reach out to the suffering outside these walls - 
to join, because of the Gospel, 
into their suffering 
and allow ourselves to be moved 
to work to bring wholeness to them, 
to ease their suffering, 
and thus bring wholeness to the entire flock, 
the entire Body.
This is how we show unity in Christ, 
how we are the body of Christ - 
by suffering with those who suffer 
and being moved to alleviate that suffering 
in whatever ways we can, 
to bring peace and whatever restoration we can.  
God gives us strength and courage to serve God 
by serving others, 
to do that work to alleviate suffering.  
This is the work of the Church.
And so as Paul invites Timothy, 
so I invite you to join with me in suffering for the Gospel.  
To look outside these walls 
and really see the suffering in our community, 
and to really suffer for them ourselves - 
to feel pain for those who are poor, lonely, 
abused, forgotten, 
and to act in response to that suffering 
as the Body of Christ, 
being Christ’s hands and feet in this world.