Sermon May 7: The Valley of the Shadow

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Faith United Methodist Church

May 7, 2017

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Rev. Kristabeth Atwood

Scripture:  Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25

Prayer for Illumination: 

Risen Christ, open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts, so we might recognize you once again in these words of scripture, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

And may the words that I speak and the thoughts that we form be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Sermon: The Valley of the Shadow

This is the fourth Sunday of Easter.  The Easter Season includes Easter Sunday and goes all the way until Pentecost, which is June 5th this year.  These days between Easter and Pentecost are called The Great Fifty Days of Easter.   In the early church new Christians were often baptized on Easter Sunday.  The fifty days between Easter and Pentecost served as a time of instruction for these new converts, an opportunity to learn the basic teachings of Christianity.

So, these past few weeks, we’ve been following the example of the early church and exploring some of the basic concepts of our faith.  A couple weeks ago we considered what it means to believe in Jesus.  Last week we reflected on salvation and our understanding of “being saved.”  Today we are looking at suffering.  What does it mean to suffer as a follower of Jesus?

First, I think we can all agree that suffering is an inevitable part of life.  We all suffer.  To suffer is to, “…to experience pain, illness, or injury; to experience something unpleasant (such as defeat, loss, or damage); to become worse because of being badly affected by something.”  We suffer broken bones and heart attacks.  We suffer heartbreak and loss.  We suffer from doubt and lack of confidence and the poor decisions of others and ourselves.  None of us get through life without suffering.  As the Psalmist wrote, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”

And neither was Jesus immune to suffering.  We speak of the passion of Christ to describe the last week of Jesus’ life when we was arrested, betrayed, beaten, and crucified.  The word ‘passion’ comes from the Latin word we translate into English as suffering.   Our Messiah is a suffering Messiah.  Even the Son of God was not spared the cruelties and humiliations of human life.

And, because Christ suffered, Christians over the centuries have attached certain significance to suffering.  We all have our cross to bear.  In our Adult Study class we’ve been exploring some “Christian phrases” that people often attribute to the Bible, but are not actually Biblical.  Everything happens for a reason.  God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.  These reassurances, which are not actually in the Bible, are often used to theologize another’s suffering.  If we can explain someone’s suffering as part of God’s plan, we don’t have to think too much about it ourselves.  Yet suffering, for suffering’s sake, is not redemptive.  Jesus came to relieve our burdens, to lead us out of the valley of the shadow and bring us to abundant life. 

So what, then, is the value of suffering?  We all must endure suffering, so what can we learn from it?  I’m sure many of your remember my struggle with migraines.  For years I would have debilitating migraines come on seemingly out of the blue.  I’d have to hide away in a dark room, sometimes for several days.  And I never knew when they would come on.  I suffered.  (And those who were called on to step in to my place to lead worship or facilitate a meeting or teach Bible Study at a moments notice probably did, too.) And over the years they just got worse.  Willing to do anything to stop the migraines, three years ago I gave up gluten and caffeine.  Since then I can count on one hand the number of migraines I’ve had.  It feels like a miracle. 

So what did I learn from my suffering?  I would like to think I learned to be more empathetic with those who suffer migraines, or any kind of pain.  I also like to think I am more grateful today ~ for my health and for the people who stepped in when I could not.  Do I think that God gave me migraines to teach me these things?  No.  I don’t think that God gives us suffering to teach us lessons.  I do think that, if we invite God into our suffering, God can use it to help us grow.

Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar, wrote about the 23rd Psalm, “It is God’s companionship that transforms every situation.  It does not mean (that) there are no deathly valleys, no enemies.  But they are not capable of hurt, and so the powerful loyalty and solidarity of [God] comfort, precisely in the situations of threat.”  In the midst of suffering we can come to know GOd in a new way.  We don’t have to go looking for suffering to make that happen.  Life already brings us enough suffering.  When we find ourselves suffering the trick is to remember to look for God, because God is surely with us. 

If you’ve looked around the Sanctuary these past few weeks you’ve probably noticed an increasing number of …… butterflies.  Butterflies are on the altar and on the healing cross, on our PowerPoint and even fluttering up our altar cross.  Butterflies are a brilliant symbol of resurrection.  Out of seeming death the butterfly breaks free from it’s cocoon and flies beautiful and free.  And, you know, if you try to help a butterfly along by poking a hole in it’s cocoon, it just cripples the butterfly rendering it unable to fly.  It needs to endure the struggle.  It needs to suffer the difficulty of breaking free in order to strengthen its wings to take flight.  

When we encounter suffering, and we will, we can remember that even in the valley of the shadow we are not alone.   Our Messiah is a suffering Messiah.  Jesus endured the tomb of death and broke free, to emerge beautiful and free.  And this is the One that stands beside us as we suffering, as our companion.  Thanks be to God.  Amen!