The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: 1 Peter 3:13-22
I used to ride BART, the subway system in the Bay Area, between Oakland where I lived and San Francisco where I worked. Every single day. At least once a week, I’d be in a car with an unhoused person. Sometimes they were sleeping in the seats. Sometimes they’d come through asking riders for money. And sometimes they were…disruptive. This was the community I worked with as a chaplain, and I got to understand that these disruptions usually came from some combination of mental illness, substance use, and, most of all, a deep and frantic desperation to be seen, to be cared for.
Have you ever felt invisible? Have you ever felt that the people in your life couldn’t or wouldn’t acknowledge part of who you are? That they couldn’t or wouldn’t see something that you deeply loved or valued? That they couldn’t or wouldn’t recognize the suffering you were going through?
Do you remember how that made you feel? Do you remember how you coped? Did you fold into yourself, making yourself smaller, to make them feel comfortable? Or did you drink or smoke to dull the pain that people refused to see? Or did you act out, maybe not in a very healthy way, demanding to be seen?
Jordan Neely, an unhoused Black man, was demanding to be seen on train in the New York City subway. He was shouting that he was hungry, thirsty, desperate. He was making the people on the train uncomfortable. And one man, Daniel Penny, was so uncomfortable that he grabbed Jordan and put him in a chokehold until he stopped breathing. Until he died.
I’m trying to imagine who else was in that subway car looking on. Those people who felt so uncomfortable, first by Jordan’s desperate shouting and then by the violence happening in front of them, that they chose to do nothing. Well, someone pulled out a phone to record it, but that was it.
First Peter is a letter to Christians in what is now the country of Turkey, which was then part of the eastern Roman Empire. These Christ-followers were becoming a disruptive presence in their communities. They had newfangled ideas that were becoming more and more challenging to existing religious and cultural beliefs, more challenging to the power of the Empire. At first, the Roman authorities were content to ignore these weird Christians, pretend like they were invisible, like they didn’t exist. But as more and more people converted, the more the authorities were forced to acknowledge them, and to respond to them.
First, it was just community stigmatization. Christians found it harder and harder to walk down the street without being judged and verbally accosted. Then it became active attacks that the authorities turned a blind eye to. Then came active state oppression. Eventually, the Roman Empire actively created laws to limit Christian ways of being. These laws sanctioned oppressive and sometimes violent punishment.
First, stigmatize a group. Then turn a blind eye to their mistreatment in the community. Then create laws to limit their ways of living and moving and having their being. Then actively punish them for being who they are or for being in the situation they’re in.
I mean, we could be talking about our transgender siblings. Or we could be talking about our unhoused siblings. Or we could be talking about our undocumented siblings. There are so many different people we could be talking about.
First Peter talks to these increasingly persecuted Christians and calls them to emulate Jesus. Jesus who stepped in on our behalf, who suffered on our behalf, to give us life and life abundantly.
Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.
That second verse is one of my favorites in the Bible. It’s a little convoluted, though, so I’ll simplify it: Always be prepared to offer an account of the hope that is in you.
Jesus offered an account of the hope that is in him by putting his life on the line for us. Who do we put our life on the line for? Who are we willing to have compassion for, which quite literally means: who are we willing to suffer with? What comfort are we willing to sacrifice in order for others to have life abundantly?
And I want to be clear: this is not a call to suffer for the sake of suffering. Jesus suffered and died not for the sake of suffering, but because he was willing to stand up to Pontius Pilate and the religious extremists.
Suffering is not a badge of honor. It’s not a display of our great faithfulness. Sometimes it’s senseless. Sometimes it’s cruel. Always, it is always doled out disproportionately to those who are marginalized.
But sometimes, suffering is what we must be willing to endure to offer an account of the hope that is in us, so that others may experience the abundance we experience.
The persecuted Christians in the Eastern Roman Empire truly believed they had abundance to share with the world, the abundance of Christ’s love that enlivened them and brought them hope, and they were willing to suffer in order to share that abundance with the world. Their offering of the hope that was in them was bravely embodying who they were and what they believe, even in the face of suffering. That is how they emulated Jesus.
Which is what our trans siblings are doing. Which is what our unhoused siblings are doing. Which is what our undocumented siblings are doing. Simply living and moving and being as their authentic and abundant selves in this world that is so hostile to them—that is their offering of hope.
For most of us, the world is not so hostile. For the most part, most of us here fit into notions of “normal” and “acceptable,” whether that’s completely true or not. People can’t tell that I’m queer or autistic just by looking at me. So I get to move in the world more easily. I encounter less suffering, even though I definitely do sometimes suffer. So I am called to make space for others who don’t move as easily as I do. Each of us is all called to make space for others who don’t move as easily in this world as we do.
Always be prepared to offer an account of the hope that is in you.
Do you know why I always bring up the hard things happening in the world? Because faith does not exist in a vacuum. Faith isn’t just an idea that we carry around with us to make ourselves feel good. Faith isn’t merely having beliefs and values in our life, it’s living those beliefs and values in the world around us.
Hope isn’t easy. Inherent to hope is pain. Inherent to hope is suffering. Inherent to hope is desperation. There’s no need for hope if there is no pain or suffering or desperation.
We need to be willing to see and acknowledge the suffering around us before we can offer an account of hope. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, the scripture tells us. When we see suffering, we cannot look away. We must do something. We must take action.
Because—and this is the very good news—what we do matters. I read a tweet recently that stuck with me that I’ve slightly paraphrased:
“It can be overwhelming to witness and experience and take in all the injustices of the moment; the good news is that they're all connected. So if your little corner of action involves pulling at one of the threads, you're helping to unravel the whole damn cloth.”
Seeing suffering and naming it, letting ourselves feel the pain of it, and then doing something about it is how we offer an account of the hope that is in us.
And just like Jesus, a person seemingly of no consequence, who put his life on the line in a dusty corner of Judea, a place seemingly of no consequence, you have no idea how your actions, how your offering of the hope that is in you, will reverberate.