SERMON 5/15/11 Easter 4A
He wore dirty jeans, holey high top sneakers, and a plaid shirt that had not been washed in a week. The condition of his clothes said a lot about the life he must have lived at home. His name was John Wayne. This was no cowboy with a particularly distinctive swagger and well-known voice. No, this John Wayne was a quiet, shy third grader, who due to no fault of his own, found himself every day in a particularly difficult situation. It was obvious that he suffered an impoverished existence. It was obvious to me at nine years old, that he was hurting when one day while everyone else was eating lunch, and I watched him pick up the scraps of potato chips the other kids dropped from their brown bag lunches. On the playground, the other kids made fun of John Wayne, they ostracized him from the group, and he suffered. Oh yes, he suffered.
I remember telling my mother about John Wayne and then watching her reaction to what I had witnessed. Soon after that, every day for the rest of the school year, I came to class with two brown bags. One had my name on it and the other had John Wayne’s name written at the top. In both bags, my mother put sandwiches, chips, cookies, and money for milk and ice cream. My mom made it clear that I was not to just give him the bag and then join my friends for lunch, but I was to sit with him and share lunch together. Through a simple brown paper bag, I learned that suffering with others is not merely solving the problems of their plight, but it is sharing their suffering with them.
Suffering in a broad sense, is an individual’s basic experience of unpleasantness associated with harm or threat of harm. If you read the epistle today and hear that personal suffering is some sort of a virtue, without considering what Jesus taught us about “suffering with those we love,” we will miss the whole point. Peter is not advocating for virtuous suffering, as if we are to allow ourselves to be abused or martyred. Peter is acknowledging that “suffering is a part of life.” Suffering is the reality in which, all of us find ourselves. Suffering is not fair, life is not always fair, and death is certainly not fair. It is not fair that young children in our own neighborhood go to school every day with nothing to eat. It is not fair that hearts are broken when one spouse says goodbye to their soul mate at the time of their death. It is not fair that disease, famine, weather-related devastations, and war cause such pain and anguish in the world.
Suffering is not fair; it is simply the human condition. The higher calling for us Christians though, is to suffer in love with one another. Many folks ask, “why do good people suffer?” We have no problem intellectually justifying why bad folks suffer. We can even find scripture that could support that notion, we all remember the line “You reap what you sow.” Even so, the scripture seems to refute that notion when we read, “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” The biblical witnesses say that often, it is the righteous ones who suffer. Consider well-known biblical characters like Job, Moses, Ruth, and even Paul. There are many modern examples of righteous sufferers as well: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr. So why “with such a benevolent loving God, does suffering exist?”
It is the benevolent God that enters our suffering and bears our burdens with us. God takes on human suffering in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In Christ, we witness the loving God in the midst of suffering. In Jesus Christ, we see the loving God who experiences hunger, thirst, pain, the loss of a friend, betrayal, rejection, and yes, even death. Jesus is the suffering servant who fully endured the pain of human suffering with us.
To be a Christian is to follow Christ. Jesus suffered passionately for us and thus if we follow his example, we are to suffer passionately, for others. That does not mean simply to endure one’s own circumstances. It does not mean merely “to bear one’s own cross” or live the life of a martyr for glory or accolades. Suffering with others is an act of passion by which, we enter the lives of those who bear pain and we share their pain with them. It means to care enough about the suffering of another person to do something about it. It may even mean risking one’s own security in order to be at the side of another suffering human being.
As Christians, we are resurrection people. We are a community bound together by the hope that death and suffering is not the end, because we live in the expectation that God’s Kingdom will break through. As Christians, we must remember though that we cannot jump straight to the empty tomb, because resurrection only comes after death, Easter only after Good Friday, and renewal only through suffering. It is in the bearing each other’s burdens, that we discover the joy of renewal. Our Good Shepherd showed us the way. We want a Good Shepherd who sees it as his responsibility to find us when we are lost and clueless. We want a Good Shepherd who invites us beyond our beginnings and our sufferings and promises us that “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” We as followers of the Good Shepherd are called to show others the gate, and to walk through the gate with them.
For a brief time nearly 37 years ago, I was called to sit with John Wayne on that playground and help bear his burden, and in a very short time, we became friends. I never have discovered what happened to my third grade classmate, but my hope is that in his life he has found renewal in Christ. I do know that wherever he may be, God walks with him and sustains him. I pray every day that he knows the joy of renewal and new life in Christ. John Wayne taught me what it means to have the courage to walk alongside those who hurt. The same Christ that suffers with us, bids us to drop our fears and suffer with others. It is our ministry to bring others our abundance, to take a seat beside those who suffer, and to share the great gifts of grace and mercy, which God has given us.