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May you live in interesting, painful, times

Delivered at Monroeville UMC

What a world we live in. “May you live in interesting times,” as the saying goes. Now that we are coming back to in person worship, it is time that we might review what has happened since the beginning of 2020. We started with Australia on fire. We were inundated with pictures of burning property, suffering animals, and crying people. We moved on to a potential war with Iran. Somehow, and thankfully, we avoided more suffering caused by that. Our President was impeached by the House of Representatives, which caused uncertainty and a loss of confidence in our system. We then began to suffer due to COVID-19, which has destroyed lives in more ways that I can probably name.

Just as a bit of a filler, we had some murder hornets, but I haven’t seen those yet. And now we stand in the midst of the largest civil rights movement in history, sparked by the murder of George Floyd, which was really just a straw on the camel’s back for a people systematically oppressed in this land for centuries. I have experienced so much in the past 6 months that I have had difficulty remembering things, it has been hard for me to balance work and fun, and it has been stressful on my soul. I know that many of you are in similar, maybe worse situations.

There is a lot of pain. A lot of pain. There is economic pain. People have lost their businesses that they poured their lives into. People have lost their savings – gone are their dreams of retirement or sending their children to college – or having a new roof on their house. Over the past few months more people than ever have been living day by day to make ends meet, just now possibly able to return to a job where they were already making wages too low for any sense of comfort.

There is systemic pain - pain of the sin of racism, pain from the sin of authoritarianism, pain from the sin of letting these issues go to the wayside. All of this on top of the normal pains that we experience as humans. The cancers, the heartaches, the relationship issues, the mourning of a loved one. Yet, because we are Christians, we know that God will comfort us through these trials, and we look forward to the days when God will end all pain and suffering for good.

For now, we live in interesting, painful, times - and today, we are going to talk about it.

When I was in bootcamp at Parris Island, when scrubbing the floor at the end of the day, our drill instructor used to have us yell, “Pain brings us together.” The phrase stuck with me. In that moment, the “us” in the phrase was referring to my fellow recruits, but this statement is true for all of us. “Pain brings us together; pain brings us together.”

There is actual evidence, published by the Association for Psychological Science in 2014, that pain is a sort of “social glue.” A fabric that binds those who share it together, where individuals are willing to put the interests of the group above their own, and makes them more cooperative with each other.

But this is more than a scientific discovery or a clever military saying - when we actually analyze the Gospel, this is the underlying theme. We as Christians believe that the bringing together of the world was done at the execution and resurrection of our God. We worship a God who was incarcerated, tried and found guilty, who suffered a painful and embarrassing death in front of his friends and family. God took the wickedness of pain and suffering and made it into the most glorious display of love the world has ever and will ever see. The Christian religion started with pain. The pain of Jesus brought the Apostles, and the world, together.

In Paul’s Second letter to the Corinthians, we get a fuller picture on what Christians must do in response to pain and suffering. In the fourth verse of this chapter we see, “God is the one who comforts us in all our trouble so that we can comfort other people who are in every kind of trouble. We offer the same comfort that we ourselves received from God.”

Pain is arguably the only completely shared human experience - and we have a God who comforts us through it so that we can comfort others. To be absolutely clear: according to Paul, that is why God comforts us – so that we can comfort others - and that is the purpose of pain. To bring us together.

See in the American church especially there has been a trend that Christianity is mostly about having an individual relationship with Christ. This may come as a shock to you, but this shouldn’t be the extent of the experience of a believer. There is no such thing as a Christian loner. Paul stated, “we know that as you are partners in suffering, so also you are partners in comfort.”

While we as Methodists believe that every person is free to choose whether they will become a follower of Jesus or not, the burden of being a Christian is collective, not individual. When we speak of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we are always speaking of that relationship in the context of a community made up of other followers of Jesus. Christianity is not an individualistic religion. It is a social and communal religion. It is a religion where we are bound by the fathers love for us, the holy spirit moving through us and by the painful death and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. Pain brings us together.

The other important part of this text is Paul’s word, “others.” Who are others? If Paul is correct, and the reason Christians receive comfort from God to comfort others, the logical conclusion would be that others, in this context, means people outside of our own church. So, who are we called to comfort outside of our own church?

Could it be the person down the street that has lost their job or a friend or family member because of COVID-19? Is it the college graduate who had their prospects taken away because of an economic depression that rivals the Great Depression? Is it the immigrant who feels ostracized in their own community? Is it those struggling for racial justice? I just wanted to add, that part of the reason Christians must boldly proclaim that “Black lives matter” is that we have a Christian responsibility to comfort our black and brown brothers and sisters in their sufferings. We need to let them know that they are not suffering alone. We need to let them know that, because we believe in a God who was raised from the dead, we believe too that God will raise us from our suffering, and we will be the hands and feet of our God to make it happen.

We are mandated with the responsibility of each other’s welfare. The individual relationships we have with Christ bind us into a radical relationship with one another. We are referred to in the Bible as “brothers and sisters” for a reason. This may seem difficult to do, but over the course of this job at your church, I have been happy to witness it.

I have seen my queer brothers and sisters comfort each other in their struggle for recognition, and their straight allies using their privilege to give them voices. I have seen Aleesha and Amanda use their skills to comfort this church through a time that people needed it more than ever. I saw Nick and the worship band praise God through the storm of this world, shining hope into the lives of hundreds of people watching in their homes. I have seen Pastor Ed proclaiming the gospel alongside his black brothers and sisters in the streets that he shepherds. These leaders have let the pain of this world bring them together. They understand the bond of Christ’s blood. They understand that pain will bring us together. They are using the comfort they have in Christ to comfort others.

I ask my fellow believers today, how are we going to do this together? How are we going to lead our community through painful times? How will we be there for one another? I implore you to lean on God and each other through this painful time, so that we may do the same for others. Amen.

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