Through the Fire of Internal Suffering
Sermon preached on the Sunday of All Saints, June 19, 2022 by Dn. James Wilcox
Matthew 10:32-33; 37-38; 19:27-30 June 19th, 2022
Today, we arrive at a very difficult text. As we just heard, Jesus tells His disciples that "Every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny him before my Father who is in heaven." He adds, additionally, that the person who loves his father, mother, son or daughter more than Christ himself, "…is not worthy" of Him. More difficult, still, is this teaching that "…he who does not take [up] his cross and follow me is not worthy of me."
Now, these are verses I'm certain most of us have encountered before. They are not unfamiliar to us. But I often think that — on paper — these things are relatively easy to assent to. We get it, sure… "Our love for God, and our service to Christ, MUST be so much greater than the love we share with those for whom we care dearly." And in our minds that sort of settles our difficulties with this text. We leave it at that. But to simply leave it like that and move on, is to do what Father Antony mentioned a few weeks ago. A difficult and personally challenging teaching from Jesus is issued, and instead of taking the time to process the truth of His teaching — to allow it to transform us — we deflect it, and move on. Except that when Father spoke about deflection two Sundays ago, the ones deflecting were the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. Today, the ones deflecting from this difficult Gospel teaching, I think, are each of us. It's much easier to watch Jesus call out the bad guys, than it is to be on the receiving end of it ourselves. Why is it so difficult to look deep within and see just how and why this teaching unsettles us so much?
But today's Gospel reading is not the only place where we deflect from difficult teaching. I think its also easy to deflect certain portions of today's Epistle reading, as well. We were just told of the many great works of the Saints who in faith, went before us, and performed great miracles. Some "stopped the mouths of lions," while others revived the dead! But looking closer at the entirety of reading, far more attention is given to those Saints who have experienced great suffering! Some were sawn in two (Isaiah), others were put to death by stoning (Stephen), and others, still, were run through with the sword. My hunch tells me, that most of us prefer not to focus too hard on these portions of the Epistle text, because it involves suffering for our faith. It's much easier to read about all the great and miraculous works performed by the Saints, perhaps, even hoping that one day we too might become Saint-like and begin working the miraculous. I, too, hope for this for each of us, but we have to acknowledge that it's easier to deflect away from those aspects of the text that involve personal suffering. We prefer stay with that portion that sound a whole lot nicer.
As difficult as it is to admit, suffering is a basic reality of our existence. No matter how hard we try avoid it by staying healthy, physically fit, or even financially secure, we will experience suffering in this life that we do not ask for. But how we respond to suffering when it comes to meet us, is an opportunity for us to enter into the tension of our Christian faith! Each of the Saints we read about today, didn't run into the streets seeking to get themselves martyred, but "through faith" simply accepted suffering when it came to meet them. And for them, this is what it was to "take up their cross."
I tend to think that here in America we have a bit of an unrealistic notion of what it means to "suffer for the faith." I've heard some in the Orthodox world state, for instance, that American culture hates Christianity. And anytime I hear this claim it's usually in the context of that person making a moral judgement of someone, or some group's behavior — usually online — and when they get called out for it, the person thinks they're being "persecuted." I'd like to suggest that we should not fear, nor blame the culture for Christianity's failure to "love our neighbor" as we love ourselves. The secular culture does not so much reject God as much as it rejects the version of god they've been taught to believe in.
Moreover, this type of perceived "persecution" is not the type of suffering we read about in today's Epistle and Gospel readings. Lest we forget that Jesus was not put to death by a godless culture, but through a collaboration of the religious and political leaders of His day. More importantly, this "fear of culture" is really just different form of deflection. In this case, a deflection away from one's own inner suffering projected onto the outside world. Rather than doing the work of looking at one's own sins — looking deeply within at why our own particular sins are so enticing — we deflect and blame someone, or some thing that exists on the outside. And let's be honest, none of us really wants to suffer, myself included. But we would prefer to be right. Being right satisfies our ego, and deflects attention away from the pain of our own inner suffering. And the question I would like to pose is: how can we begin to process any external suffering that comes to us unexpectedly — like the Saints in today's Scripture readings — when we have not acknowledged the suffering that already exists within us?
Richard Rohr suggests this is one of the reasons Jesus taught so often in parables. The "precise function" of parable, he states, is so that "God can get in." 1 Parable subverts our perception of how the world works so that we may truly undergo the process of inner transformation. And inner transformation, itself, takes time, work, and conscious awareness. It is not easy. It's much easier to think we are right! Inner transformation, on the other hand — that is, to know who we truly are in Jesus Christ — this requires a certain type of spiritual training. And of this, specifically, Richard Rohr says the following:
"There are only two things strong enough to accomplish this training … [prayer and suffering]. Only [prayer and suffering] are strong enough to decentralize the ego and the superego. The process of prayer we can choose to do ourselves; the suffering is done to us. But we have to be ready to learn from it when it happens and not waste time looking for someone to blame for our unnecessary suffering…It is the things you cannot do anything about and the things that you cannot do anything with that do something to you." 2
For a beautiful example of this, I'm left to recall the life of Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian farmer who is the subject of Terrence Malick's film "A Hidden Life." Franz refused to join the Nazi forces and swear allegiance to Hitler because of his moral conviction and commitment to his faith. Like, Jesus, he was ridiculed by the religious and political leaders of his day. He was eventually imprisoned and tortured, and about halfway through the film he reflects aloud onscreen:
"When you give up the idea of surviving at any price, a new light floods in. Once you were in a rush, always short of time. Now you have all you need. Once you never forgave anyone, judged people without mercy. Now you see you own weakness… so you can understand the weakness of others."
In light of his confession of faith, torture and imprisonment were the things Franz could do nothing about. But it was through this suffering — by taking up his Cross — that something was done with him, internally. The divine light awakened within. And it changed him. And he allowed it to change him. His ego was transformed and subdued. Suddenly, all at once, everything he thought actually mattered, no longer did. Once he feared for his own life. But his fear was transformed into love. Onscreen, we see him befriend a new prisoner walking the yard who is terrified and starving. Franz approaches him discreetly, away from eyes of the guards, and drops his remaining ration of bread onto the man's plate, hoping it will comfort him. Who in their right mind would give up the only food they have in a torturous prison, to alleviate the suffering of another human being? This is a divine action shaped only through the fires of internal suffering, with a willingness to endure through prayer, faith and love.
I was recently directed to a letter written by modern singer/songwriter who was answering a fan's question asking "What is God?" And this artist responded with what might be one of the most "Orthodox" statements I've ever heard by an artist in the secular culture. But as Father noted last week: "The Holy Spirit flows where it wills." I'd like to close with this quote: To the question of "What is God?" the artist replied:
"God is love… All that is required to move from indifference to love is to have our hearts broken. The heart breaks and the world explodes in front of us as a revelation…" He continues: "Why does it take a devastation for the world to reveal its true spiritual nature? I don't know the answer to this," he states, "but I do know there exists a kind of potentiality just beyond trauma. I suspect that trauma is the purifying fire through which we truly encounter the good in the world. Each day I pray into the silence. I pray to all of them. All of them who are not here. Into this emptiness, I pour all my desire and want and need, and in time this absence becomes potent and alive and activated with a promise. This promise that sits inside the silence is beauty enough. This promise, right now, is amazement enough. This promise, right now, is God enough."
1. Richard Rohr & Andreas Ebert, The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective, (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1989), xx.