November 15, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Do you remember way back in the spring, as the disasters of 2020 were piling up, how we tried to find humor in the unbelievable catalogue of tragedies?
“Wildfires, hurricanes, pestilence; what’s next?” we asked smiling, “locusts?” and then to our chagrin, gigantic swarms of locusts did descend on fields in Africa, about the same time that killer hornets were invading the west coast. By the end of May, however, we had lost the will to laugh because our troubles took a darker turn with the death of George Floyd, and very fabric of society threatened to unravel as protests and counter-protests consumed our streets. The summer and fall hasn’t brought much relief: just this morning we woke to the news of spiking virus numbers and violent clashes in the city of Washington over the results of the election. I have started way too many sermons this year with a litany of the challenges facing us and now a new kind of suffering has been added to those we have already endured: the exhaustion of realizing that our problems are not going to magically end just because the calendar changes from 2020 to 2021. It’s not the number of the year that is the problem; and it is not the number that will be the solution.
How do we endure the continuing weight of our suffering? I have been preaching a series on suffering, looking at what comfort and help the Bible gives us in the different kinds of suffering we endure as human beings, and I chose today’s passage from Acts because I think that this story includes the breadth of all of those kinds of suffering that we have experienced in these past 11 months.
Just look: in this passage from the book of Acts, Paul and Silas are arrested, stripped naked, and beaten with rods. Their suffering is a physical suffering; the kind that we too have known this year as we have confronted the deadly devastation of a virus that breaks down bodies and steals away the breath of life. Our suffering can come from the fact that we live in fragile bodies that can be bruised and broken.
In this passage, Paul and Silas are chained in a dark prison cell away from family and friends, uncertain of their future, and unable to break free to help themselves. Their suffering is a mental suffering that we too have known this year as the virus as isolated us, as we have grappled with loneliness and the helplessness of being trapped by circumstances beyond our control. Our suffering can come from the fact that we are social creatures in need of contact with one another, who experience a great emptiness when denied the company of the ones we love.
And finally, Paul and Silas’s imprisonment is unjust. They had done nothing wrong to earn this sentence but were persecuted for their insistence on restoring human dignity to a woman who had been enslaved and oppressed. The suffering of Paul and Silas is a spiritual suffering that we too have known as we have struggled for justice against the powerful and tried to push back against the inequities of poverty, class, and fear. Our suffering can come from the fact that we are people who are committed to God’s declaration that every person is equally valued and so who experience deep despair when that vision is denied.
We who have worried about the health threats of the pandemic, who have seen economic hardship from the shut-down, who have been isolated in our homes, who have been heartsick over the deaths of men and women of color at the hands of police sworn to protect, who have felt trapped this year by events beyond our control, know too well what Paul and Silas were going through that night; and so like Paul and Silas, we too have sought comfort in prayer and the singing of hymns, or at least, the humming of hymns for those of us in the sanctuary. In times of sorrow and stress, we, like Paul and Silas, share the prayers, the hymns, the rituals of worship, words of scriptures, and the rhythms of the psalms that have been a part of Christian faith for over 2000 years. Why do we find comfort in such things? Not because we think that they are going to magically make everything better — if they did, Covid would have disappeared months ago — but we join in these rituals because when we do we are lifted momentarily out of our loneliness into a community of faith larger than our one life, and our prayers and rituals bring us into the presence of a holy God who is broader and deeper than this moment in time. We are reminded that we are not the first to suffer and that people of faith before us have found ways to endure and even flourish in times of hardship. Our comfort comes from realizing that if they could sustain their faith and hope in the worst of times, then we too can find a way through this. The God who helped them is our God who will be with us as well. The Christ they followed is our Savior who promises to save us as well. Two thousand years has not removed the love and strength of God from us, and so one bad year, or several if it comes to that, cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ. We will endure; and we will even possibly flourish.
We understand the suffering of Paul and Silas and we find comfort in their ability to sustain their faith in that dark cell; but their story offers us not just comfort but a new way of understanding suffering and its place in our lives. Suffering is hard for anyone but I think it is particularly difficult for Americans because suffering doesn’t have a place in the mental landscape of our societal assumptions. As Americans we are taught that our fundamental rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and while the framers of the Declaration of Independence were using those words to assert an individual’s right to self-determination, we have elevated the “pursuit of happiness” to an almost sacred duty. If you ask parents what they want most for their kids, they will say, “I want them to be happy.” Or ask a person why they left a job, or broke up a relationship, and they will most likely say, “Because I wasn’t happy.” While there is nothing wrong with wanting to be happy, making happiness the measure of a good life can leave our lives stripped of meaning when we are suffering. Where does our suffering fit into a world that insists that the best life is a life of sunshine and happiness where we are able to meet every day with a smile?
Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who spent three years in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, wrote, “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning [that can be found even in times of] suffering, [because] suffering is an ineradicable part of life.….We who lived in concentration camps,” he says, “can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Paul and Silas sat in the dark of a prison cell, hungry and cold, bruises throbbing from their beating, uncertain of what the future held, when suddenly the door of that prison swung open. Freedom beckoned, but the Bible says, they chose to remain where they were for the sake of their jailor. They chose his well-being over their own; they chose to continue to endure the pain, indignity, loneliness, and hardship of that prison cell out of love for their enemy. For Americans who are told that our highest calling is the pursuit of happiness, it’s hard to square anyone choosing suffering over happiness, but Paul and Silas hadn’t been raised in a country that elevates happiness over all else. Paul and Silas had committed themselves to Christ who measures the value of our lives by a different standard. As Christians, our highest calling is not to a life of happiness but to a life that insists on caring for others even when we ourselves are hurting, that looks for goodness and beauty even in the ugliest of times, that pursues peace in the midst of conflict, that shows compassion even to our enemies, and that believes that the measure of a man or a woman is not in how happy they are but in how loving they are.
I want to be clear — I am not saying that suffering is a good thing or that those who suffer should try to find blessing in their pain. We would all be better off if there had never been a pandemic. We would all be better off if there was no injustice to protest. And every person who has suffered the death of a loved one would give anything to turn back the clock and choose happiness over grief. I am not suggesting in any way that we should become self-flagellating martyrs seeking out suffering because it is somehow good for us. What I am saying, however, is that there is something even worse than suffering, and that is the false belief that when we suffer our lives are stripped of meaning and thereby we are reduced to nothing. On the contrary, the most noble people I have known are those who have insisted on continuing to live lives of compassion even as their own hearts were breaking, people who have reached out in generosity to others even when they didn’t know how they would pay their own bills that month, those who struggle with anxiety yet have overcome their fears to stand against intolerance, people who have smiled up at me from their hospice bed and asked, “But how are you? Tell me about your life.” These are people who, like Paul and Silas, know that at the end of their time on earth, they will not count the value of their life by how happy they were but by how much they loved.
The value of our lives is measured not by our happiness but only by how much we continue to love even when our own hearts are broken and our suffering knows no end because it is only our love that will outlast all of this. In the words of Paul himself, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”