A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 24 May 2020. the Seventh Sunday of Easter, by the Revd Dr Sam Wells
Reading for this address: 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
In Delia Owens’ 2018 novel, Where the Crawdads Sing, the teenage Kya sits by a lagoon which smells ‘of life and death at once, an organic jumbling of promise and decay.’ (142) She watches fireflies ‘scribbling across the night.’ She’s learnt that each species of firefly has its own language, where the female flickers the light under her tail to signal to the male she’s ready to mate. Kya watches as a female attracts a male of her species this way. But then she sees the female change her code. In no time, a male of a different species hovers above this adaptable female. Suddenly, we’re told, ‘the female firefly reached up, grabbed him with her mouth, and ate him, chewing all six legs and both wings.’ (142)
And then we read these words. ‘Kya knew that judgement had no place here. Evil was not in play, just life pulsing on, even at the expense of some of the players. Biology sees right and wrong as the same colour in different light.’ (142-3)
Of all the reasons people give for feeling short-changed by Christianity, suffering has to be the most common. But what people less often say is that there’s four kinds of suffering. Suffering One is stuff that just happens, and we feel so sorry because it could happen to anyone, anytime, and it could have been me, and it seems random and unjust, although it happens to everyone in the end. Suffering Two is when stuff happens, but in truth the sufferer was idle, or careless, and could have helped themselves or alleviated the problem, and we feel sorry, but we make a note to learn from their folly. Suffering Three is when stuff happens because of genuine malice, whether cruelty, the deliberate infliction of harm, or selfishness, the casual infliction of harm while seeking some other goal. This makes us sorry, but also angry, because it’s no accident. Finally there’s Suffering Four, which the victim knew was likely or even probable, but they went ahead with their endeavour undaunted because it was so important it was worth the cost. This leaves us full of admiration, or sometimes incomprehension. We could call the four types of suffering mischance, muddle, malice, and martyrdom.
Working out where one example belongs is a fascinating exercise. Thus the cannibal firefly is either Suffering One, mischance, or Suffering Three, genuine malice, depending on whether you think you can attribute malice to a firefly. What’s unique about the virus is that it’s brought about a suffering that’s outside these four categories. That’s to say, the virus is a variation of Suffering One; instead of stuff happens randomly and without provocation to someone, stuff is happening to everyone in the entire world. Attempts to introduce blame, and thus turn it into Suffering Two, muddle, seem misplaced – an inability to sit with Suffering One, mischance.
But we all know stuff doesn’t hurt everyone equally. Two groups feel it most: those for whom the virus poses the greatest health risk; and those who face economic desperation due to measures taken to slow the spread of the virus. Among this second group, the greatest suffering is among those who were already destitute, who it’s common to call ‘the homeless.’ At St Martin’s we don’t usually use that term, because we try to avoid describing a diverse group of people by the one negative thing they all lack. Instead we try to highlight the myriad wonderful things they each are.
There’s an interesting and controversial debate about what combination of the four kinds of suffering those who are vulnerably housed and those who sleep outside represent. But instead of speculating on causes, I want to look at some life-giving words from 1 Peter 4 and 5 that focus on responses to suffering. It’s a mystery why these words aren’t better known amongst Christians, because they offer a template for what we are to do when life has caved in all around us and we find ourselves bereft, destitute, humiliated, and hurting. The letter gives us three simple, memorable steps, whichever of the four types of suffering we’re going through.
Let’s look at the first step. It’s about God. What this letter does is to reframe the whole question of suffering as fundamentally not about us but about God. Rejoice, it says. You are blessed, it goes on. Why? Because you have the greatest privilege of all, which is to be with Christ in the most intimate way – to share his sufferings. The sufferings of Christ are the most poignant and paradoxical thing about him. They delve into the mystery of God’s love for us, the grace that this love continues despite our fecklessness, and the wonder that God will go to any length to be with us, even the cross. To compare our sufferings to Christ’s passion is to make them an entry-point to communion with the Trinity. It turns agony into privilege, tragedy into honour, misery into joy.
I recall a wedding speech where the best man started in the middle, and clumsily blundered on having obviously missed out vital material. When he got to the end he carried on, now finding himself at what was clearly meant to be the beginning of the speech. When he reached the point where he’d actually begun, he kept going. Now listening was deeply satisfying because you could make sense of all the assorted information he originally seemed to have overlooked. In the end it was a brilliant comedy routine. First Peter is saying suffering is like this. Initially it makes no sense, but once you realise what’s happening and you discover you’re being taken into the sufferings of Christ it’s like reading the second half of the speech a second time and it all makes sense. That moment where you reach the join and recognise the words in their proper context is the feeling you get when you find your suffering is fused with the passion of Jesus. And since you’ve heard this part of the speech before, you know how it ends, and you can take comfort that however crucifying your ordeal is, because it’s fused with Christ’s passion, you know it ends in resurrection.
Step Two in responding to suffering is about oneself. See how dispassionate are the opening words: ‘Beloved, do not be surprised … as though something strange were happening to you.’ I beg your pardon. I never promised you a rose garden. When Terry Waite was taken into captivity in Lebanon in 1987, he said to himself, ‘No regrets. No self-pity. No false sentimentality.’ He knew he could only survive if he was ruthlessly honest with himself. That’s what First Peter calls us to. Like Terry Waite, we’re given three instructions to survive the ordeal. We start with ‘Humble yourselves.’ Don’t turn this into a melodrama. Don’t be surprised, shocked, dismayed. Deal with it. This is your reality now. It won’t last forever, but you need to come to terms with it. Then it says, ‘Cast all your anxiety on God.’ Accept there’s too many unknowns, profound fears, gnawing worries. Hand them over to God. There’s nothing too scary or momentous to say to God. God can handle the bits you can’t handle. And then, ‘discipline yourselves.’ Create a routine. Train yourself. Get better at coping. Don’t be too hard on yourself straightaway; don’t be too soft on yourself once you’ve got used to it. Find a way through it, so it never becomes your whole reality.
Then there’s Step Three. This is about others. Resist. How can you resist, when you’re struggling to survive and resistance risks worsening your plight? You resist, it says, ‘for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.’ That’s called solidarity. Resist means continue to assert a reality that’s over, above and beyond this suffering. You’re not on your own. It’s what we call the communion of saints. You’ll never walk alone. Two weeks ago my colleague Richard Carter appeared on the TV news talking about those who this far into lockdown still have nowhere to stay and nothing to eat. The Punjab Restaurant at Seven Dials called and said they would make vegetarian curry for 50 people each Sunday. The chef said ‘I went to an Anglican primary school and I want to help.’ That’s solidarity. But there’s more. First Peter says, ‘after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace… will restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.’ See how here all three steps come together – God, self and others. Feel the joy of those words. Restore: you will not be in this condition forever. Support: you will be given the help you need to change your reality. Strengthen: over time you will become your old self, wiser and deeper, and unscathed. Establish: you will be in a very different position should all of this ever happen again.
Those are the three steps to respond to suffering: God, self, others. Rejoice: fuse your suffering into Christ’s sufferings. Reshape: get yourself together for the long haul. And resist: join with brothers and sisters across the world. Rejoice, reshape, resist.
A few months ago a member of our congregation who’d spent ten years vulnerably housed in London and came originally from West Africa was deported back there. Some members of our community have supported him before, during and after this terrible experience. Last week they received a message from him. It said ‘Greetings in Christ! In this difficult and hard time, a deported person is like someone travelling on ship, only for the ship to sink in the middle of the sea. You can swim back or you can swim front just stuck in the middle of nowhere. Trying to have a better life, trying to build a life, get a work and start a life. Only to be torn away and return to face the dangerous environment and violence you have fled. You have to face health challenges, accommodation problems, food security and economic hardship. But I thank God I have a wonderful family called St Martin-in-the-Fields: my shelter in storm and my light in darkness. I thank you all. I would have mentioned all your names but your names are recorded in heaven for the kind act you did. Thanks and God bless you.’
I share this message because our friend, the writer, embodies all three of First Peter’s responses to suffering. First rejoice: our friend is the first to put his travails within the glory of God’s unfolding story. Next reshape: our friend is totally unsentimental in describing how he has to go about enduring his situation and the disciplines he needs to develop. Finally resist: our friend is in no doubt that we across the world are sharing his grief and seeking to carry his cross with him.
None of us know why there’s so much suffering in the world. But just as seeing suffering is the biggest obstacle to faith, so seeing a person like our friend respond to suffering is perhaps the greatest inspiration to faith. Why does St Martin’s stay so close to people like our friend? Not out of guilt, pity or nobility: but because he shows us all how to rejoice, reshape and resist. He is First Peter among us.
In the end we’re not fireflies, manipulating, manoeuvring, grabbing and eating each other, chewing six legs, two wings and all. We all face a mixture of mischance, muddle, malice and martyrdom. Suffering isn’t going to be abolished this side of forever. But as our friend beautifully shows us, we can make suffering not the end but the beginning of faith, through these three steps – rejoice, reshape, resist.
May God’s Holy Spirit restore, support, strengthen, and establish you now, and forever.