Sermon, May 28

Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.

That’s how two verses from the fifth chapter of the first letter of Peter, today’s Epistle, are rendered in our Book of Common Prayer. Who knows where they appear? … That’s right; this is one of the short Scripture texts offered in Compline, our nighttime prayers. I didn’t grow up saying Compline with my youth group every Friday night, like our kids do. But I’ve still used the rite many, many times over the course of 42 years as an Episcopalian. And through repetition, this short passage sunk into my mind and heart, becoming one of the snippets of Scripture that I have on instant recall. (This reminds me of the joke about the Episcopalian who finally read the Bible and was surprised by how much it quotes the Prayer Book!…)

Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith. These verses stuck with me not just by virtue of repetition, but also because they’re memorable. The earnest warning, and the evocative image of the Devil as a predator prowling around the flock, waiting to catch a sheep alone, sick, weak. Vulnerable. Whether or not you believe in the Devil as a sort of CEO of global evil operations, evil is an active force in the world, and in human hearts and lives. I recognize this text as true: there are temptations, ideas, actions and inactions, that would draw me away from my sacred call to love of God and love of neighbor. Those temptations, those forces lurk around me, looking for an opportunity. They have their best chance when I’m tired and drained, or angry, or afraid, or hurting. When I don’t have my trust in God’s ultimate goodness and my own belovedness wrapped around me like a warm blanket, or like armor.

The adversary prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour… This text stuck with me too because it’s scary. Not just because of that vivid image, but because it seems to be putting a lot of pressure and responsibility on me. Be sober and disciplined. Keep alert. Resist the Devil, steadfast in your faith. Face down the lion. Me? With my puny clawless hands, my soft underbelly? It’s not the most comforting thought with which to end the day and lay oneself down to sleep.

But then, sometime in the past decade, like the archetypal Episcopalian in the joke, I actually read the Bible. And I discovered two things. First, the passage in the Compline rite is incomplete. It breaks in the middle of verse 9, which reads in full: “Resist [the Devil], steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.” Second, the “you”s through this whole passage are PLURAL. A distinction that English doesn’t make very clearly, but Greek does. The author of this letter is addressing churches here, not individuals. The translation of the Bible that we generally use for Sunday Scriptures, the New Revised Standard Version, makes this a little clearer than the version in the prayer book – “Discipline yourselves.”

But it’s not just that the author is addressing more than one person, but that he’s addressing a community. In fact, one strong theme of this letter is to take care of each other. I found at least four times in this letter when the author tells the members of these churches, Just love each other, OK? In chapter 1: Love one another deeply from the heart. In chapter 2: Love the family of believers. In chapter 3: Have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. And in chapter 4: Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining.

The author of this letter – maybe the apostle Peter, maybe a later church leader writing in Peter’s name – this author has taken to heart Jesus’ prayer for his followers, in today’s Gospel: That they all may be one. He knows, as Jesus knew, that Jesus’ followers are going to need each other. That the Way to which they, and we, are called is hard to follow on your own. It’s too nuanced, too open-ended, too profound, too risky. We need a community of faith to encourage each other. To hold one another accountable. To support each other when we’re confused or hurting.

In fact, this author is actually pretty focused on that last point: the church’s response to suffering. He’s writing to Christians who are struggling with difficult times, and are wondering: If God loves us so much, if Jesus’ saving death and resurrection transformed reality, how come terrible stuff still happens? Why isn’t life easier now? How do we deal with suffering, as Christians? That is still, absolutely, one of the core questions of faithful living. And this letter offers one answer. It’s not a fully satisfying answer, because he can’t promise an end to suffering. But it’s also one of the only true and lasting answers that humanity has found, in millennia of wrestling with the reality of human pain: Don’t face it alone, and don’t leave others to face it alone. Look out for each other. As spiritual writer Anne Lamott says, It’s our job to sit with people and bring them juice, until it’s our turn to have someone sit with us and bring us juice.

To say that suffering is an enduring part of human life is not to say that all suffering is inevitable. If we lived in a world of peace, where everyone had enough to eat and access to medical care, then a substantial percentage of the world’s suffering would be eliminated. But not all suffering is avoidable, even in an ideal world. Some of it is built into the human condition. To being embodied, being mortal; to loving each other, or not loving each other enough.

And it turns out that both the wisdom of the ages and modern psychological research confirm that one of the best ways to cope with suffering is to have the support and companionship of others. Psychologists name this as the “common humanity” factor; the sense that you see your struggles as part of the human experience, not something that isolates you or sets you apart. In the words of 1 Peter, to know that “your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.” And they have found that that awareness is a major source of resilience and comfort, for people going through a hard time. It’s really good to know it’s not just you. It’s really good to know that somebody else went through this and came out the other side. It’s really good to know that somebody understands.

But how do we find those companions, that fellowship of common experience? When we’re going through something hard – trouble at work, a loved one’s illness, family conflict, depression, infertility – we tend to keep it close. Those things are tender, personal, not public. Maybe a close friend or family member is carrying it with us. But it’s hardly a conversation for the office or the bus, the gym or the business lunch.

One of the things church can be is a place to find that fellowship. I learned this from you, friends: when we’ve talked about why church matters to you, why you keep showing up, many of you have mentioned moments in your lives when you were facing something new and hard, and you discovered there were people in your church who knew what that was like – because they’d been through something hard too, the same kind of hard thing or maybe not the same. But it gave them that sympathy, that tender heart that 1 Peter names, to be able to hear you and let you know you’re not alone. I’ve seen it happen, too – I’ve witnessed the holy moments when someone says, for example, Being a single mom is really hard, and people around the table who are five or ten or twenty years farther down that road nod and say, Yeah, it is. And we’re here for you. We’ll listen, we’ll pray, we’ll help.

Church is different from the office or the bus. We don’t always get it right, but our hope is to be place where it’s safe to name your hurts and sorrows and fears. Where you can feel and know that you’re not alone: others in your faith family have walked the road that you’re just starting down. You’re not alone: the griefs and struggles that are new to you are not new to the community of the faithful – as our Scriptures, prayers and stories bear witness. You’re not alone: God’s loving presence is always as near as your next breath, and when you can’t feel that, or believe in it, you can feel the care of the people who become the icons and vessels of God’s presence.

Friends, I’ve even pondered the idea of creating a list, with your help – a sort of “I’ve been there” list that I would keep, of the people in the parish who’ve been through cancer treatments, caregiving for a loved one, advocating for a child with special needs, infertility, addiction, the list could go on and on. So that when I find out that someone is facing one of these situations for the first time, I could help them find a friend in this household of faith – a companion, which means, a person with whom you break bread.

The author of First Peter is on to something. Suffering, whether persecution of the church as a whole or the human hurts and disappointments of its members, will always be part of the picture. It’s intrinsic in having bodies that break, lives that end, hearts and minds that love and grieve and yearn.  Be sober, be watchful. The adversary, the one who corrupts and destroys, prowls around the flock, waiting to catch a sheep alone, sick, weak. Vulnerable.

What do we do about it? We keep watch – together, not alone. We resist evil – together, not alone. We insist that suffering connects us rather that isolating us. We nurture sympathy, tender hearts and humble minds. We practice hospitality towards one another without complaining. We persist in the slow necessary life-giving work of loving each other deeply, from the heart.