Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us. Sometimes I wonder if Paul might not be a little Pollyannish in his reasoning. I want to cling to this soliloquy but do I really believe it? How much suffering can be endured and does that really produce character? Its one thing to talk about suffering and quite another to experience it.
I don’t know of anyone who has never experienced suffering. To some that suffering was endurable because they knew it was limited to a particular time or situation. Others find suffering endurable because they have such great faith in something more than what they know in this life or in this world—and their faith in God and eternal life is strong enough to buoy them through the hardships. But for those who consistently suffer, who have suffered as an individual, as a community, as a people and culture, from generation to generation, how is that endured?
Martin Luther King Jr.’s fourth and last book written in 1967, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? advocates for human rights and hope. He tells the story of the Civil Rights Movement beginning with the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In those first pages of his book, in a chapter entitled “Where Are We?”, King makes the observation that Selma, the March, and the Voting Rights Act were the first phase. For white Americans, that first phase represented the entire struggle—their goal was to treat the African American with a degree of decency, not of equality. King says, “White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination.” King goes on to say, “But the absence of brutality and unregenerate evil is not the presence of justice.” Those words may have been written in 1967, but they speak truth to us today.
As Christians, we pray to be “minister[s] of [God’s] justice” in The Collect for the day this morning. We ask for God’s grace to do that and we will need to look deep within ourselves to find the compassion to go over to those who look different from us and have grown up in vastly different circumstances than our own and are a different color or race or nationality than us and look at the world from their eyes. When we do that, what will we see? Can we imagine a sense of powerlessness in the face of an authority who would kneel on our necks—a sign not simply of power and control but of oppression? Can we imagine the ever-present, gnawing concern a parent has that their child won’t return home alive that evening simply because of the color of their skin? Can we imagine the circumstances of our life after second and third generational poverty? Maybe if we do so we might become a beacon of hope for someone who has only ever known suffering. Maybe if we do so we can help produce endurance and character. But right now, suffering is suffering and the suffering that we have witnessed in these past few weeks is not justice.
Jesus sends the twelve out to minister to those who were poor and sick and lame and outcast. He instructs them to proclaim the good news of the kingdom but he also told them to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the leper, cast out the demons. If we are to be disciples of Jesus, then we too must not only proclaim good news but act in such a way that we bring the kingdom of heaven near, especially to those who suffer. It’s not easy work—this kingdom living. It can be tedious and unpopular. It can mean giving up some of ourselves or using our privilege in ways that make us uncomfortable. It can mean getting our hands dirty or taking a stand when we would really just rather go sit on the couch.
I’ve heard a bunch of stories from people of color concerning their more moderate white friends. A common theme that seems to reflect a variety of experiences is our uneasiness with taking a stand or speaking out when we are brought face to face with an injustice. One such story described two men, one black the other white, who worked together for the same utility company in Mississippi. They occasionally went and got a beer together after work, knew one another’s families and struggles. They joked together and laughed together and were friends. One day they were finishing up a job on a backwoods road around lunch time. The white fellow was already in the truck as his black partner finished loading the equipment in the back of the truck. A white policeman came driving down the road and saw them. He pulled over, got out of his car, and began to ask the black man where he had been for the last two hours. He accused him of committing a crime that had happened that morning. The black man kept repeating over and over again that he had been working in that spot all morning and his partner was in the truck and could vouch for him. The officer repeatedly told him he was lying and became more aggressive and verbally threatening. The white guy never got out of the truck. He never asked what was going on or intervened in any way. Whatever was happening, he did not want to be a part of it—maybe it was fear or indifference, or confusion—whatever it was, he didn’t act, he didn’t intervene, he didn’t stand up against injustice.
Its not that hard to imagine that story. Its not that hard to relate to the indifference or fear or confusion that paralyzes those of us who could act. Its not our suffering after all. But maybe it should be. That hope we are offered–the hope produced by suffering and endurance and character—that hope is for all God’s children—black, white, or purple-polka dotted. And if we are to all share in that hope then we all share in that suffering.
Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pentecost 6A: Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7); Psalm 116:1, 10-17; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8(9-23)
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, June 14, 2020
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer