Transformed by Suffering

1 Peter 4:12-5:11    Oh, how we miss seeing one another in person, singing together, passing the peace. We know that our relationship with God does not have to be interrupted by a pandemic, but clearly our relationships with one another have been forced to operate in new patterns. To look out for the safety of our entire community, we are going to have to adjust to a new reality going forward, that is for sure.
This pandemic is affecting the way we behave and the way we think. You may be starting to wonder when we will return to worship in our sanctuary. I want to be sure that you know that your Session is meeting two times each month to remain diligent in this unusual time. Re-gathering in the building is on every agenda and in conversations between meetings. We are keeping in mind local and national health guidance, recommendations from the Presbytery, as well as considering the make-up of our congregation—with a large percentage of members over 60 years old and some with serious health conditions. We may need to have hybrid services, where some of us are in-person, perhaps outdoors, and some at home. We want to be together as soon as it is safely possible. Your church leaders are open to your comments and concerns and will set aside some time during fellowship after worship today to listen to one another on the topic of re-gathering. For now we will continue our worship as we have been and I encourage you to keep expanding our fellowship by inviting out of town family or your neighbors down the street to join in with us via zoom on Sundays or during the week for other activities.
Another example of how the pandemic is changing me: Dan and I watched a movie the other day and I found myself surprised at my hyper-awareness as I watched the scenes of the hugging of family members, the clasping of hands in greeting one another, the big crowds cheering at the basketball game– because now all of that seems unusual behavior to me. This pandemic is affecting the way we behave and the way we think.
How interesting to me that one of our lectionary texts assigned for today in the ongoing three year lectionary cycle of Scripture passages is a portion of this letter known as 1 Peter. It is a fairly short letter to a group of congregations in Asia Minor, making it one of the so-called “general” letters, because it is not addressed to a specific group of Christians gathered in one place, but to any church. It is hard to pin down the date of its writing or its actual author. At the very beginning of the letter, the writer claims to be Peter, the disciple of Jesus, but we know that often in the first and second centuries others would write letters in the name of a revered person to honor and promote them. The letter is clearly written to people who are suffering, with the writer offering words of comfort and encouragement, reminding them that they are, in a sense, sharing in Christ’s sufferings just as they will one day share in Christ’s glory. They are participating with Christ, they are in community with Christ, because of going through times of trial, through what is described as a fiery ordeal that has been testing them.
These Christians are suffering because they are not following the governmental expectations to worship Caesar. It is not so much suffering for what they believe, but for the actions they take based on what they believe. They are being ridiculed, slandered, shunned, and in some cases, physically harmed because they are doing things that contradict community norms and expectations. They are doing things like feeding the hungry, working to liberate the prisoners, preaching the story of Jesus as Lord, speaking up for justice. They are living their faith, and that is getting them into trouble. As Miguel de la Torre writes, they were learning that “To live the gospel is threatening.”
Let me be very, very clear. Our pandemic-related suffering—whether it is keeping us from gathering in the church building, an interruption to our daily routine, added stress, a loss of connection to those we love or a major loss of income– is NOT due to living out our Christian faith. I do not believe that our current suffering is caused by God to test us—but that doesn’t mean God can’t use it to strengthen us, to transform our priorities, to teach us empathy for people around the world who face suffering much of the time. Although there are some who would disagree with me, neither do I believe that the pandemic has been sent to us by the devil to harm us—but that doesn’t mean that the devil doesn’t use the pandemic to twist our priorities, tempting us to turn inward and forget about our responsibility to love our neighbor. I repeat: the pandemic-related suffering is NOT the same as the suffering which comes from living as a Christian in a hostile world. But the shared experience of suffering puts us in a seat at least right next to the original recipients of this letter. We are sitting at the same table. The writer is offering them clear suggestions on how to respond to their suffering. Although the reason for our suffering is quite different, I want to suggest this morning that we too can pick up tips from the writer of this letter for ways to respond to our pandemic-related suffering, or any other kinds of suffering we may experience.
Our suffering today is not unique to us. We must remember that we have brothers and sisters around the world who are facing pandemic-related suffering. Our family in Sagua la Grande, Cuba is not suffering any actual cases of the virus, but they, along with their neighbors, are facing long lines at the food dispensaries and often finding that the food runs out before all people have been served. The scarcity of food in Cuba is affecting them deeply. So when we get too focused on how hard things are in our corner, let us remember that we are connected in our suffering to brothers and sisters worldwide. Perhaps suffering can become more palatable when it is shared, when we realize we are not alone.
Suffering comes in many forms and for multiple reasons. Sometimes we suffer because of our own sinful actions. Sometimes we suffer at the hands of a natural or human-caused disaster. Sometimes evil (or you might use the term, the devil) has caused us to suffer. Sometimes there is no real answer to why we are suffering. No matter what the cause of our suffering, no matter what the depth of our suffering, it’s the way we look at our suffering that makes a huge difference. Victor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychologist who survived multiple concentration camps during World War II, and lived on until the late 1990s, was a firm believer that the meaning of suffering is in the response of the sufferer. What attitude does the sufferer take toward her suffering? How does the suffering transform his perspectives, her self-concept, his world view, or her relationship with God? In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Dr. Frankl wrote: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” And: “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…”

We do have the freedom to choose how we respond to suffering. The writer of this letter in the late first or early second century offers four ways to respond to suffering which still can be our choices today:

  • First, humble yourselves. Remember that we are humans and God is God. There is nothing in our job description as human beings that says we are in control, other than the assignment to care for the earth and all that is in it. Look at others around you with a sense of humility, recognizing that everyone has an important role to play in this body of Christ and we need all the parts. When you get impatient with someone who can’t catch on to the technology or the song or the recipe or the gardening techniques as fast you can, stop and remember the other gifts that person does have. When you think you have a handle on balancing all the stressors in your life, stop and remember just who it is who is guiding and leading you, the chief shepherd.
  • Second, cast your anxiety on God. The writer of this letter never says you will not experience anxiety. It is ok to be anxious in the face of suffering. It is ok to be anxious in the face of so much uncertainty. It is not ok to hold all the anxiety within yourself. Dump it. Turn it over. Leave it in God’s lap and keep on keeping on. You may find it helpful to journal, to write memos to God, to walk outside in nature, noticing what is new and different. Maybe it is through exercise or singing or painting that you are able to turn your anxiety about suffering over to God.
  • Third, be clearheaded and stay alert. The writer of this letter describes our adversary like a lion on the prowl, ready to devour us. How quickly can self-pity devour us. How quickly can isolation from others turn our perspective on the world inside out. Is it the devil at work? Is it evil lurking at your door, waiting for you to succumb to the suffering you are experiencing? Watch out. Be aware. Take steps to keep from being tricked into allowing your suffering to take control of you.
  • And finally, resist the power of evil, remaining steadfast in your faith. In the face of suffering, draw closer to God. In the face of suffering, pay attention to the transformation that is happening in you, in your perspective, in your attitude. Talk about it with your loved ones. Pray for others. Pray for our brothers and sisters in Sagua la Grande. They are praying for us daily. Each night at 9 pm they step out of their doors to applaud health workers everywhere who are fighting this virus. I have shared with Pastor Yailen the names of those in our congregation who are on the frontlines, and they are applauding you too! She asks for our prayers for Sofia, for Nelson, for Delia, for Jose and his family, and for Yaima. We may find that as we lift the needs of others before God, we find less need to focus on our own sufferings.

We have the freedom to chose how we respond to suffering. May our experiences transform us into a stronger body of Christ, committed to something that is much larger than our personal joys or challenges in life, united with brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. Amen.

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