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Resurrection: Transforming Suffering

The Rev. Sara Warfield

Scripture: Matthew 16:21-28

I was watching an interview with film director Greta Gerwig the other day, and something she said really stuck with me. She said, “I knew that when things came up that were problems or difficulties, or something went awry, that that was not a deviation from the path, that that was the path.”

I think we tend to believe—I tend to believe—that in an ideal life nothing bad happens. No pain, no hardship. That the path should always be flat, straight, and easy, and that obstacles and suffering are an aberration.

We are all Peter in the face of suffering, our instincts saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This shouldn’t be happening.”

But Jesus is clear: “Get behind me Satan,” he says. If you think resurrection comes without facing suffering, you have seriously misunderstood my teaching. Jesus isn’t here in this passage to explain why suffering happens. Jesus is here to look suffering in the eye, engage it, and transform it.

That’s what we see him doing through the course of this reading. First, he acknowledges the suffering that is to come: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed.”

Then, he engages that suffering and calls his disciples to do the same: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

He tells them that after his suffering and death he will be raised on the third day. Acknowledging and engaging suffering, he says, leads to transformation. It leads to resurrection.

Suffering, even the most senseless, even the most undeserved, always contains the potential for transformation. And let me be clear, that potential for transformation does not justify suffering. If suffering can be prevented, I think we should do everything we can to prevent it. But sometimes it can’t be. Often it can’t be.

Suffering, distilled to its very essence, is simply change that we interpret through the lens of pain. I don’t say that to diminish the pain. Emotional, physical, spiritual pain is real. It can be disabling, debilitating. Even Jesus, when faced with the suffering he was about to endure, begged God at Gethsemane to take it away. So he could just go on as he was, teaching, healing, and being with his friends. Don’t let this change happen, he prays to God.

A fracture is the condition of our bone that was once whole suddenly changing to having a crack in it. Our body translates that change through the lens of pain. So we know it’s serious and that we need to tend to it, to transform it.

Even death is the condition of someone being present with us changing to them being gone. We translate that through the lens of pain, which is actually our awareness of how connected we were to them. How much we loved them.

That pain points us to the things we care about. The things we want to preserve. The things we want to hold onto. But at its most unhelpful, suffering can make us small and fearful, desperately trying to avoid pain by maintaining the status quo. At its most expansive, though, suffering can open us up to new ways of being we couldn’t possibly imagine. What in our faith we call resurrection.

In fact, suffering is built into some of our most life-giving changes. Giving birth causes physical pain and sometimes leads to postpartum depression. A child who has an extreme growth spurt experiences pain in their very bones. Even the change of retirement, the thing so many of us look forward to but once many of us get there, well, it can be so disorienting as to send us into an existential tailspin. What is my purpose now?

So again, Jesus is asking us in the gospel today: How do you look suffering in the eye, engage it, and transform it. How do you take up your cross? How do you lose your life to save it?

It’s something our community has been confronted with recently. There’s been a bit of a change in who has been coming onto our church grounds lately. They’ve set up tents during the night and slept on the picnic tables during the day. More seriously, as I shared last week, we believe that one of these new neighbors lit a fire under our junior warden’s car. It was terrifying.

That fear is also a form of suffering. The pain of anticipating a change we don’t want to happen, or that something bad will happen again. I was heartbroken to learn last week that, because of the fire, a few people were afraid to come to the church during the week.

Now I mentioned that if we can prevent suffering, we should. As I shared last week, the person we believe set the fire is no longer allowed on our grounds. He has demonstrated that he cannot keep our community safe. But this is something bigger than that one person. This is our opportunity as a community to look suffering in the eye, to engage it, and to transform it.

We can first acknowledge the suffering of our unhoused neighbors. Probably not many of us here can imagine what kind of cascade of circumstances lead people to find themselves without a place to live. The serious illness leading to losing your job and enormous medical debt leading to eviction. And suddenly you’re sleeping in your car. Until that breaks down and you have nowhere to go.

That’s an actual story I’ve heard before. I’ve heard other stories like these, only they get interrupted along the way by addiction because drinking or doing drugs is the only thing that momentarily eases people’s pain. I’ve heard stories of people whose schizophrenia made it impossible to hold down a job, but they weren’t an imminent danger to themselves or others so they couldn’t get the care they needed. Because unless there’s the threat of immediate danger, it’s really hard and expensive to get someone good, comprehensive mental health treatment.

We don’t know everyone’s story, but I can tell you one thing: there is suffering in every single one of them.

We can also acknowledge our own suffering. Our fear after the fire. Our own pain at not knowing how to help, that though we want to be kind we also get overwhelmed by what kindness should mean.

But we don’t stop at acknowledging the suffering. We engage the suffering. Take up our cross. Ask ourselves, how does this situation call us to our faith? What are our values? That’s what our From Transactional to Relational group talked about on Thursday. We wrestled with this suffering we’ve encountered. And we agreed that St. Luke’s highest value is welcome.

Welcome means feeling safe and feeling respected. If a person poses a threat to someone’s safety, like that fire, they are violating our highest value of welcome. If someone is treating another person with suspicion for no reason other than what they look like or the bags they’re carrying, they are disrespecting that person.

Welcome for us also means maintaining our sacred spaces—our sanctuary, our columbarium, our labyrinth, our grounds—for worship, for prayer, for refuge, for rest. We abide by our city’s laws, so that means we will not allow camping. But that’s not the same thing as someone resting on our grounds during the day.

Once we engage the suffering, we have the opportunity to transform the suffering. So we bravely step into our values of welcome. We declare that our welcome is the same for every single person who comes to our church: housed, unhoused, the people going to AA, folks walking the labyrinth, people who walk their dogs here. And our declaration is this: All are welcome, so long as they can be safe and respectful to every person here and so long as they treat this sacred space with reverence.

And it means all of us holding one another accountable to those agreements, because when we don’t, when we let disrespect and threats to safety slide, we diminish our welcome.

None of this is easy. In fact, I can tell you from my experience over the past few weeks that it’s really challenging. It would be easier to close ranks, make sure we always know who’s on our campus, kick out anyone who doesn’t have a “valid” reason for being here. But that would be seeing certain neighbors of ours as obstacles to the path rather than the path itself.

That would deny us the opportunity to take up our cross, to lose our life to save it, to discern what it truly means to live God’s love. It would deny us the opportunity to create the Kingdom of God in our little corner of the world, to transform suffering in order to experience resurrection.


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