Sunday, May 3, delivered at home for Romney Presbyterian Church, Romney, West Virginia
For the past six weeks, every Sunday, around 10:15 am, I’ve gathered the webcam, the laptop that I thought was mine until Katherine started needing to teach remotely, my little tablet, water, and my coffee and walked across the driveway into an empty church. I’ve gotten the set-up process over there down to a science. Along the way, the fact that I’m doing all of this in a huge, empty building has gone from feeling very strange to somewhat familiar…even comfortable.
It also hasn’t felt very purposeful. I’ve been focused on recreating the closest thing possible to what we did before, trying to give everyone an approximation of familiarity in the hope it would be comforting. I hope it has been for most of you. It has been for me.
But now I’m starting to think that we are making idols out of familiarity, out of comfort, out of the way things were. I worry that we will rush to get back to that: both that we might jump the gun and open too soon, exposing ourselves and our communities to undue risk, but also that, in our rush to get back to normal, we might succeed.
A few weeks ago, on Easter, instead of leading our Sunday Service, I shared a video of a worship service put together by some of our denominational leadership. The Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, President and Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency said in one of her prayers that God “doesn’t let a hurt go to waste.”
One of the major idols in Christian Theology is the idea of “redemptive suffering.” That God will see our suffering now and reward us for it later…it is particularly pernicious because of the way it can be used to glorify suffering. We have a long history of this, of feeling a need to punish others, or even to punish ourselves, for real and imagined wrongdoings. The Roman Catholic tradition of confession and penance might come to mind for some of you, but it is important to remember that, at least originally, priests prescribed penance not to add to someone’s punishment, but to provide an external limit on how much they should punish themselves.
Our text today from 1 Peter is a text that can be mis-used to prop up this myth of redemptive suffering. Today’s passage begins “For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that?” This makes it sound like you accrue points when you suffer unjustly, and that there is such a thing as justified suffering.
But 1 Peter continues: “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example…When he was abused, he did not return abuse. When he suffered, he did not threaten.” The example set by Jesus in his suffering is not the suffering itself, but that he did not use his suffering as an excuse to inflict suffering upon others.
How often have you done that? Or had someone do that to you?
You may know the cliché “Hurt-people hurt people.” Katherine and my favorite guilty-pleasure, reality TV dating shows, are rife with examples, with people who are still hurt because of something from their last relationship, and so when their current partner gets anywhere close, they lash out, making a pre-emptive strike before that wound can be touched again. Last night Katherine and I saw a particularly strong example of that on “Love Is Blind” …but no spoilers.
Our text today continues on, saying of Jesus: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and the guardian of your souls.”
Our author doesn’t mention the resurrection, not because it isn’t important, but because it is so important that he assumes it is on everyone’s minds. It is there underneath all his text. In the crucifixion, Jesus suffered because of our unwillingness to listen, our fear of a different future. The resurrection is the divine promise that our fear does not triumph. That we can break the cycle of inflicting our pain on others. Through the Cross, we inflicted our pain and suffering on Jesus, punishing him for daring to try to tell us that we could do something different, something new. God did not let that suffering go to waste. God used that suffering to give us the resurrection: to show us that our fear, our pain, and our suffering do not ever have the final word.
Living with this fresh in their memory, the eleven set about forming the early church, in the texts we have been reading from Acts over the past few weeks. The text paints it as a period of fantastic growth, bringing in thousands of new members in a single day on multiple occasions. It is, for that reason alone, a daunting example for us to take on. I do think, however, it is a useful example, not for the numbers game. I’m not competing with Peter. It is, however, useful because it is a model of Church without a church. A model of how to be a community without a dedicated space, or the ability to gather in large numbers.
Yes, they spent time together in the Temple, but much of the Temple complex was outdoors, and it wasn’t a dedicated space for the early Church, just one they could access because, at this point, they were nearly all Jewish. The gathered where they were able, something like what we are doing now, but they also gathered in smaller groups, meeting at home…also, like we are now.
They broke bread together, sharing meals. That is something that is hard for us to do right now. I came to Romney excited by the monthly Fellowship dinners…that I have yet to see, and likely won’t see for some time yet.
But this has me thinking. I don’t know when we can all gather together next door. Even when we hear that it is safe, the decision to resume in-person worship, coffee hours, fellowship dinners, and other events will be a decision that we need to make ourselves, through the Session. Some of you may already be champing at the bit, ready to race back over as soon as you can. Some of you may want to wait even longer. We will each face tough decisions about what kind of gatherings and contact we are comfortable with.
I think that there will be some time between now and our return to the big building next door…at least, all of us in person. I may or may not be back over there next week…where we can adopt some of the practices of the early church. We can gather in smaller groups in our homes for meals together before we can host larger dinners in the Fellowship Hall.
We can practice our generosity both by not taking more than we need from the stores while our supplies are limited, but also by talking to our neighbors, from a safe distance, of course, and finding out what others might need or have to share. Through this we can, like the early church, praise God and have the goodwill of the people.
We can continue to check in on one another.
We can think about what we are really trying to do when we come together. Are we going through the motions, just doing what is familiar because it is familiar, or because each piece of our worship together has value to the community?
We can take this time to see the many broken things in our world, and to remember that the only thing new is the virus. It has not created problems but has exposed flaws that we had managed to paper over or ignore.
I know many of us are hurting. Many of us are afraid. We do not know who has the best information, or when it will be safe to go outside, to visit the friends and family members who don’t live with us, but who we still love.
God does not let a hurt go to waste.
So, let’s use this time, this distance, to find the cracks in our lives, in our society, and yes, in our church.
Let’s use this time to build new and different relationships, and to repair and strengthen old ones.
And, when we do start to open, to go back to work, to resume visiting people in person, may we remember the things we are learning now.
We can’t stop this, but we can make sure we don’t forget the lessons we have learned. We can make sure we don’t waste it.