Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Suffering as Resistance, Resilience and Joy

Rev. Kathy Donley

04/09/17

 

Scripture Lesson:  Matthew 16:21-28

 

Michael Sharp was an American working for peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is ongoing internal violence in that country about which we almost never hear.    He and his Swedish college Zaida Catalan and four Congolese staff members were abducted on March 13.  They were investigating the use of child soldiers by a militia group and massacres of unarmed civilians by the government in central Congo.  Two weeks later, the bodies of Michael and Zaida were found in a shallow grave.  I had never heard of Michal, or MJ as he preferred to be called, until the news of his abduction, but since then, I have been inspired by the depth of his commitment as a disciple of Jesus.

 

He comes from a Mennonite family, which is where he learned his commitment to peace-making and non-violence.   He got a master’s degree in international conflict resolution and then spent three years as a volunteer with the Mennonite Central Committee in the Congo from 2012-2015.  Working in their Peace and Reconciliation program, he met with rebels who were part of a militia called FDLR.  Every few weeks MJ and others would walk, unarmed, to the FDLR base.  There they would sit in the shade of banana trees to drink tea with the rebels and listen to their stories. They avoided certain sensitive subjects,  like sexual violence against villagers and recruitment of child soldiers, because their goal was building rapport with the rebel faction.   He learned their stories, including the fact that many were very homesick, information which he used to understand them and to convince them it was in their best interests to go home.   

That Peace and Reconciliation Program helped persuade some 1,600 fighters to lay down their weapons and leave the forest they'd occupied for twenty years.  That's about a quarter of the total rebel force when the program started in 2007.[1]

 

MJ was so trusted by the rebel leaders that he was eventually hired by the UN’s Group of Experts, which is the work he was doing when he was killed.  He was 34.

His father, John, teaches Anabaptist history and Bible at a Mennonite college in Hesston, Kansas.  On March 27, on his public Facebook page, John wrote:

Dear friends,
This is a message I hoped never to write. We have been informed that two Caucasian bodies have been found in shallow graves in the search area, one male and one female. Since no other Caucasians have been reported missing in that region, there is a high probability that these are the bodies of MJ and Zaida. Dental records and DNA samples will be used to confirm the identities. This will take some time.  All other words fail me.

 

John has continued to share his unfolding grief and his faith while expressions of support and witness to MJ’s life have come in from all over the world.

MJ’s funeral will be on Holy Saturday, that liminal day before Resurrection, which is perhaps fitting for such a faithful disciple. 

* * *

Simon Peter would eventually come to the same level of commitment as MJ, but in today’s text, he is not there yet.  What Jesus has just said strikes sheer terror and dread within Peter and he cannot accept it.  Jesus has said that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer and be killed.  He also said “and on the third day be raised” but by that point, I suspect Peter had stopped listening. 

The verses we read come just after Peter has reached the stunning conclusion that Jesus is the Messiah, the one anticipated for generations to redeem Israel.   It is a high moment and then Jesus ruins it.  Peter has no use for suffering or pain.  He wants Jesus the Messiah to get straight to the victory.  On top of that, he sincerely cares for Jesus his friend and he wouldn’t wish that kind of pain on his worst enemy. 

“There were days back then when the road to Jerusalem was lined with crosses, each of them bearing the dead or dying body of someone whose public execution was meant to scare everyone who saw it.”[2]  Crucifixion was not just a form of torture and execution.  It was intimidation.  The Roman authorities used it to terrorize and to maintain the status quo.   Barbara Brown Taylor says, “It reinforced the idea that death was the most awful thing in the world and that people with any sense should do anything in their power to avoid it.”[3]

 

The cross was such a fearful thing.  It is hard for us, at this distance, to understand its power.  And so Jesus’ words may not pack the same punch for us.  He tells Peter and the others “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” 

What if he said “Take up your lynching rope”?    What if he said “Take up that canister of sarin gas”?

This is the meaning that we must understand about the cross.  It is about death and degradation.  It is the stripping away of dignity; it is the denial of humanness as well as the extinguishing of life.  This is the cross; this is what it means.  This is why Peter and the others reacted so strongly when Jesus said he was going to a cross: they were scared to their core.   It was probably the last thing they expected when they left their homes and jobs and followed him.

 

Today we remember the events of Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem.  He told them this day would come, and to their credit, the disciples are still there with him when it does.  Let’s not fool ourselves -- Jesus does experience fear.  When Peter said “God forbid that you should suffer,” Jesus’ response was harsh and quick.  “Get behind me Satan.”  He said that because in the desert Satan had offered a similar temptation, the victory of being the sovereign of all the kingdoms of the world, without the messiness of suffering and death.  Jesus resisted Peter in strong language because it was a real temptation. Later, in the garden of Gethsemane, he will pray “let this cup pass from me” and again we will see his fear. 

 

Jesus was human.  He felt the fear that any human would feel, but he did not give in to it.  He did not let it determine his actions.  Jesus knows that he has to suffer, because prophets have always suffered, because human beings are slow to change and understand the power of love, and they strike back against what they do not understand.  Jesus’ suffering is the inevitable outcome of his standing against Empire, against political and religious oppression.  Going to the cross is a refusal to play the Empire’s game.  It is refusing to be intimidated by their displays of crosses, refusing to let his fear of suffering and death rob him of living out his calling. 

MJ Sharp knew that he could die.  About two years ago, he sat down with his Mom and said, “you know I don’t have a death wish in the work I do, but I want you to know that I’m not afraid to die either.”  He said the hardest thing for him was to think about pain he would cause his family.  MJ’s father said, “this was his calling, we were not about to step in the way of that in spite of our fears.  Although we hoped and prayed something like this would never happen, we  knew it was a possibility.”[4]

 

This is the resistance we have been talking about all season.  Resistance is refusing to play by the rules of human empire, but instead embodying the alternate vision of the kingdom of God.  Jesus said “I must go to Jerusalem suffer.”   And he also said “what is true for me is true for you, if you are my disciples.”  Following Jesus is about being willing to pay the price.   Sometimes we suffer for doing the right thing.  Sometimes we voluntarily enter into the suffering of others, taking on pain that would not otherwise come to us because we follow One who did that for us.  People are dying of atrocities in the Congo.  MJ lived in another part of the planet, but he went to the Congo to enter into the suffering there, and he died there, in a fashion much like the deaths he was investigating.

Our Lenten theme was Resistance, Resilience and Joy.  We have spent a lot of time on resistance and little on resilience.  Resilience means the ability to recover from difficulty, to adapt to change.  Individuals or groups may be resilient. 

I suspect that some of MJ’s resilience came from being Mennonite, because that tradition keeps alive the stories of Christians who refused to play by the Empire’s rules.  When we know that others have faced similar trials, we are better equipped to face them ourselves.  His resilience was also no doubt strengthened by a family who supported him, despite their own concerns.  They did not allow their fears for his safety or his concern about their potential grief to stand in his way.   When we suffer, we learn that we may have more capacity that we knew, and so suffering itself becomes a way that we build resilience.  In the letter to the Romans, Paul said, “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

And then there is joy.  When I decided on this title Suffering as Resistance, Resilience and Joy, it seemed like it would be a good ending for the series.  I don’t know what I thought I was going to learn this week that would help me preach about suffering as joy.  Whatever I say will be preaching beyond what I know, because I have not experienced real suffering.

So I lean on the words of Scripture. James the brother of Jesus wrote, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, count it all joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

I lean on the faith of MJ’s mother, whose daily prayer for him included these words, “For strength and encouragement where there is hopelessness. For Christ’s companionable presence when you are lonely, where there is turmoil and violence. And for fearlessness and courage, when the situation calls for acting justly and showing mercy. Above all, my beloved son, I pray as you live and work amidst all that is wrong in our world, that your daily journey brings you joy, joy as you serve!” [5]

 

Jesus never said that following him would be easy.  He never said that it would be safe.  He did say “Love one another that your joy may be full.”  And “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.”  Abundant life that doesn’t shrink in fear.  Life that is lived fully, passionately, joyfully, pouring itself out, without counting the cost.  It is the life that he lived. 

“Jesus entered our condition, shared our humanity, embraced our pain and experienced our grief.  He died not only for us, but with us, hanging between two of our kind on Calvary.  Only his love held him there.  And because he chose to suffer, healing flowed for the world.”[6]

 

Sisters and brothers,  may we find the grace, the strength, the courage to follow the Christ through this Holy Week, through Good Friday all the way to Easter.  And may we count it all joy.   Amen.

 



[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, God in Pain:  Teaching Sermons on Suffering, (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1998), p. 59.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, God in Pain:  Teaching Sermons on Suffering, (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1998), p. 59.

[4] https://www.usnews.com/news/us/articles/2017-03-30/mother-says-slain-american-un-investigator-was-not-afraid-to-die

[5] http://www.kake.com/story/35028097/kansas-parents-of-slain-un-worker-talk-to-kake 

[6] . Peter Storey With God in the Crucible:  Preaching Costly Discipleship (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2002), p 85.

 

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