Pain-filled Hope

Rev.  Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church,  October 6, 2013

 Lamentations 1:4-5; 3:19-26; II Tim 1:8-14

I was worshipping in a large cathedral with a group of colleagues. It was not my denomination and I knew that I would not be able to take communion, because this church practiced what is called a closed table—only members of that church are welcome to the table. But when it came time to partake of the eucharist, I was overwhelmed with emotion. I heard the officiant say virtually the same words that I say when I officiate, and yet I could not come to the table. As my colleagues went forward, I sat alone, with tears streaming down my face. Tears do not come easily to me and so I was surprised by this strong welling up of sadness.

Communion is sacred for me. It is an intimate sharing within the body of Christ as we remember the life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. It is also a table of unity, where we, in the United Church, believe that all followers of Jesus, whether or not they to belong to any particular church, are welcome. We practice what is called an open table. It is therefore particularly acute for me not to be welcome at the table.

This same pain is palpable at World Council of Churches meetings. We pray and sing together, but we cannot yet share in the eucharist and I’ve been surprised at how pained so many people are because of this.

On this Sunday of World Communion, I am reminded not of unity, but of division. It hurts. But strangely enough, that pain might be a sign of hope. If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t hurt. But it does matter—significantly. And that is good news. Perhaps pain, itself, can be our connecting thread, because pain tells us that our global relationships with other Christians matter deeply.

Pain might also be a way of connecting with our scripture. The readings for today are full of pain. Lamentations was written as a poetic lament over the destruction of Jerusalem, and the forced deportation of its leading citizens. There’s a legend that the writer of Lamentations sat on the hill overlooking the ruins of Jerusalem and wept. The writer of II Timothy was suffering in a Roman prison at a time when Christians feared for their lives.

It is hard for us to understand these passages of persecution. Most of us don’t have the faintest idea of what it means to lose our country, our city, our home, our family members to violence. But we might have some clue as we look at the daily news. We see pictures of relatives wailing over their loved ones’ bodies, of rescuers hurrying to safety as they carry wounded children amidst blackened, jagged shells of what was. This is what the writer of Lamentations experienced.

We also encounter stories of people imprisoned and tortured simply because they espouse a different faith, a different political view. Last week, I wrote a letter through Amnesty International to the government of Sudan on behalf of Magdi Saleem, a 67 year-old human rights lawyer, who was arrested 1 ½ weeks ago and is now at risk of torture because he took part in demonstrations against the rising cost of living in Sudan. This type of detention and torture of prisoners of conscience was what the writer of II Timothy experienced.

Another way that we can begin to comprehend the violence experienced by the writers of our scripture readings is through personal acquaintance with others who have experienced the upheaval of violence. Working with me on the World Council of Churches Worship Planning Team is Michael, a Professor of Orthodox music in Cairo. He is a Coptic Christian. He’s a gentle, faith-filled man, who usually brings a smile to our faces as he talks and teaches us Coptic chants.

During the last couple of months, when Coptic Christians and churches have been attacked in Egypt, I have been worried for him. He gave me a face for the Coptic Christians and when you know someone personally, you feel their angst more deeply. Only a couple of days ago, I finally heard from him & he’s ok. He told me that Egypt is beginning to settle down and the Coptic Christians are feeling a bit safer. He was also grateful to us at Westworth for the prayers that we will offer for them today.

On this day of World Communion, I pray that we may be able to set aside disaster paralysis that sets in when we become numb to news of tragedy day after day. On this day, I pray that we may enter a little more into their pain, into the pain of our scripture writers, that we may pray for our sisters and brothers with a heartfelt compassion. The word “compassion” literally means to suffer with. As we remember Christ’s passion, or suffering, through our celebration of communion, on this day may we also remember the passion of the body of Christ throughout the world. When one member of the body suffers, we all suffer.

But it’s not only suffering that we share. The miracle of God’s grace is that, in the midst of intense pain, believers have found hope. I don’t understand it, but even as the author of Lamentations recalls the horrors of the occupation, he writes, “I have hope. The steadfast love of God never ceases. God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.”

Christians in El Salvador in the 1980s risked their lives as they stood up for human rights. They witnessed massacre, kidnapping, torture. They never knew who would be next. And yet, in the midst of this, they were somehow able to retain hope. Karen Ridd, who accompanied them and was, herself, imprisoned, has often said that despair is a first world luxury. To give into despair in El Salvador would have meant certain death. Somehow, their faith in God and in solidarity with one another gave them illogical, life-sustaining hope.

It is not only pain, but this irrational hope, that makes no sense, that is a connecting thread with our sisters and brothers around the world, for we are all the hands and feet of the grace of God. As we pray for them with compassion, asking God to sustain them, we may receive from them a sense of hope that can sustain us, no matter what lies ahead.