Sunday, November 6, 2011

"A Word of Comfort" (Revelation 7)

There was a baby. Screaming and crying. On an airplane. In the row right behind me.

I felt bad for the parents. I once took a plane flight with my own four month-old son, so I know what that’s like. I know how frustrating it is. You want to soothe your child, calm your child, but at the same time a part of you wants to hand that baby off, pretend he’s not yours, ignore him or even chuck him out the window. You want to scream, pull out your hair, and yell, “SHUT UP!”

But you don’t scream. You don’t yell. And you don’t ignore your baby’s cries. Your baby is suffering. So you care for your baby, and do what you can to lessen his suffering.

The baby is screaming, but you respond with gentleness and kindness. You pick your baby up, hold him in your arms, gently rock him back and forth. You speak softly to him, or sing a lullaby.

You try to figure out the cause of your baby’s suffering. Is he hungry? Does he need a diaper change? Is he overstimulated by all the noises and lights in the airplane? Does he need a nap?

Your baby is suffering; and because your baby is suffering, so are you. You and your baby are one. For mothers this was literally true not too long ago, but for fathers as well there is a connection. So when your baby suffers, you suffer.

If you are on an airplane with a crying, screaming baby, odds are good that some of your fellow travellers are suffering as well, especially those sitting nearest to you.

Ignoring your suffering baby will do no good. Neither will fighting, yelling at your baby “SHUT UP!” Every parent has tried that tactic at least once, in a moment of desperation. It never works.

The only thing that works is to treat your baby with kindness and gentleness; to care for your baby; to hold your baby in your arms, and love him, and reassure him that everything will be alright.

Last month, I came down with a pretty bad cold. I had a sore throat, mild headache, stuffy nose, and even a little bit of nausea and lightheadedness. However, I did not have a fever, so I thought that I could just ignore my cold and carry on with life.

For three days I did that. And each day I felt worse than I did the day before. I thought that if I ignored my cold, it would go away. But it didn’t.

By the third day, I felt miserable. I was suffering. Ignoring my suffering did not alleviate it. I realized that I needed to take better care of my suffering body in order to get better.

I spent the next three days in bed, really caring for my body, getting lots of rest, drinking plenty of liquids, trying not to worry about the work I wasn’t doing, the church work or the household chores.

I realized that I needed to make caring for myself a priority in this time of illness and suffering, if I wanted to get better.

There are many types of suffering in our world. As Christians, we are called to follow the example of Christ, and work to ease and alleviate all kinds of suffering. As a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world, we are called to ease and alleviate all kinds of suffering.

The book of Revelation was borne out of great suffering. Through metaphors and symbols, it describes those “who have come out of the great ordeal.”

It was a time of intense persecution. The number of martyrs – those killed because of their faith – was high. Those who were not killed were swallowed by disillusion, despair, sadness, hopelessness, and doubt.

The book of Revelation is a word of comfort in a time of suffering. Modern people often misunderstand the symbolism in Revelation, and for them it becomes a book of fear. I’ve often said that our modern system of politics, with its symbols of donkeys and elephants and red states and blue states and a bearded figure who goes by the name of Uncle Sam, would look just as strange to a first century Christian as Revelation’s symbols of horsemen and eagles and beasts and trumpets appear to us.

But once you understand what these symbols mean, you realize that Revelation, with all its poetic imagery, is really a book of comfort to the suffering and the persecuted, those left behind after so many others had been killed; many of them, like the book’s author, living in exile.

Nevertheless, many still believe that Revelation is more a word of warning and threat than it is a word of comfort. But does it really make sense for God to send a word of warning and threat to a people who were already suffering terribly, enduring horrible persecution? Does it make sense for a loving parent to give warnings and threats to their already crying, suffering baby? Does it make sense for a person suffering from illness to beat their bodies and pull their hair and say to their bodies, “Get well, or else I’m going to punish you even more!” ?

Of course not. And neither does it make sense that Revelation is the scary book of judgment, doom, warnings and threats that so many have made it out to be.

It is a book of comfort, written to those who were already suffering and persecuted.

In chapter seven, we are shown a vision of all those who had been martyred, along with all those still alive who continue to suffer persecution on account of their faith. They come from every nation and every tribe, from all peoples and languages. They’re in heaven, endlessly worshiping and singing praises to God. They have passed though the great ordeal. They have endured tremendous suffering.

And in that time of suffering, God was with them. God cared for them and gave them strength.

God’s care for them continues in this heavenly vision. Worshiping God in heaven, the suffering they have endured will be taken away. They will hunger no more and thirst no more. The Lamb that was slain, the lamb that suffered, will, in an ironic twist, become their shepherd, caring for them. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Today we honor and remember and celebrate all the saints, all those who have died, all those whose lives inspired us, touched us, and helped us know God. In a moment we will hear a list of names of mostly family and friends who have passed away, most in the past year. But we also remember those who died long ago; we remember so many who make up that great cloud of witnesses. Prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day. Ancient leaders, teachers, mystics, like Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Augustine, and Martin Luther.

We also remember those who began our ministry here at Bixby Knolls Christian Church. We know how hard it is to maintain a ministry; it takes a lot of commitment and dedication by a lot of people. But what about starting a new ministry from scratch? So today we also celebrate those who, 65 years ago, founded this congregation.

Now, for those we have personally known and loved, even as we celebrate their lives, their love, and all they have meant to us, we also mourn their passing, and are saddened by this time of separation from them. In other words, their departure from this life is a cause of suffering for us as we grieve.

In our church family, we have experienced the losses of several people recently, as well as some earlier this year. In addition, there are those who have passed away in years past, who have not been forgotten. As much as society tries to get us to move past the pain of suffering and grief, it is not a quick process. To some extent, it lasts for the rest of our lives.

So what do we do? Do we ignore our grief and do our best to get on with life? Do we pretend that we are over it, even if we’re not?

Ignoring the suffering within makes about as much sense as ignoring a suffering baby. Pretending that our grief and sorrow are not there or that they have gone away on their own makes as much sense as pretending that your hunger or thirst will go away on its own. Not taking care of your suffering makes as much sense as not taking care of your body when it is sick.

The negative emotions that we have: sorrow, anger, fear, hopelessness, frustration, hatred … ignoring them will not make them go away. Everyone experiences negative emotions in life. Everyone suffers. Ignoring our suffering, pretending that it does not exist, will not make it go away.

Treat your own suffering the same way you would treat the suffering of your baby child: with kindness, with compassion, with love. Hold that suffering, cradle it, sing to it. Embrace it with loving acceptance, for it is a part of you.

Too often, we beat ourselves up for having emotions that are a natural part of the human experience. That only adds to our suffering. As Christians, we are called to ease and alleviate all kinds of suffering. Including our own. And it starts with kindness, compassion, and love.

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