by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
Part the first:
This reading from Romans is so abused. Far too often, people are told that God causes suffering to make us strong, to give us hope, to turn us into better people. This version of theodicy, or why bad things happen, is at the root of so much suffering. Historically, people who have suffered under various kids of oppression have been told that God is behind the suffering, that the people causing the suffering are doing God’s work, and that the purpose of the suffering is to strengthen the person suffering -- their soul, body and faith. This theology is also peddled to people who are grieving the death of a loved one, people who are sick, and people who have been victims of violence. Even when not explicitly taught from the pulpit, this belief that God hands down suffering is so pervasive in our culture that it necessitates firm and loud rebuke. I have cared for more than one victim of sexual violence that has walked way from God because they could not understand why God would do that to them -- this terrible theology had become ingrained in them so deeply before they were hurt that no amount of correction attempts on my part could convince them otherwise.
Here, Paul is writing of the specific kind of suffering that comes from living a life of faith. The Christians to whom he was writing were being cast out of institutions from family to civic life because of their embracing of Christ. God wasn’t doing it to them (in fact, Paul never says that God is behind it), rather society is causing suffering by exiling people for their embrace of the message of Jesus. A life of faith is difficult, particularly when a life of faith goes against how society tells us to live. This message is buttressed by the reading from Exodus, in which the people are suffering for following Moses, under the guidance of God, into the desert. In both of these stories, it isn’t God causing the suffering, but, well, life, and the message in both readings is that God has our back as we suffer.
In our time in American society, there are many who claim they are being outcast from society because of their Christian faith. But, in a capitalistic society where white supremacy, patriarchy, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia are the norm, who is it that is truly suffering for following Christ against the ways of the world? Those who are fighting to reinforce these ways, raking in millions as they do it, or those who fight against these oppressive structures in the name of love? How have our heroes of Christian life modeled suffering? By amassing wealth and fighting to have oppressive structures upheld, or by giving up what they have so that others might have abundant life? Suffering for your faith is not being forced to make a wedding cake or having your youtube channel shut down because you preach hate. No, it is being doxxed when you dare to challenge white supremacy, giving up your wealth so others may have more, and giving your life for preaching love.
Part the second:
The woman at the well is possibly my favorite story in scripture. Here, Jesus crosses all kinds of social boundaries to be present with a woman who has been outcast from her society to truly be present with her as a beloved child of God. I see her as the first female preacher, as she went out and told people what Jesus had done for her. In the act of presence, Jesus gives this woman new life.
Right now we are experiencing a horrible rising up of anti-Asian, particularly anti-Chinese sentiment. A contributor on Fox news questioned how we allow the Chinese to interact with “the civilized world.” Politicians on the right are calling COVID-19 “the Wuhan Virus,” and when challenged on this blatant racism, they double down with jokes like, “okay, fine, what if I call it the kung-fu virus.” Many members of our congregations are hearing this racist nonsense (and possibly spouting it themselves). The story of the woman at the well gives us an opportunity to talk to our people about the racism currently affecting people of Asian, particularly Chinese, descent and how Christ calls us to act differently. We can talk about Jesus example of not judging people by the stories we have heard about them and/or by the ways others are judging them. Jesus shows us welcome and compassion to those who have been marginalized by society. This story allows us to speak into this moment by talking about the care and nurturing Jesus shows a person who has been outcast by society, a woman his followers don’t even think he should speak to.
Now, we need to be careful here because the parallel could sound like we are decrying racism against people of Asian descent and simultaneously declaring them unclean or sinners. For too long, this story has centered around the supposed sinful nature of this woman because she has had five husbands. Instead of a story of welcoming the outcast, this story has become a weird intersection between slut-shaming and compassion. There is actually nothing in this passage that declares the woman a sinner! Jesus simply tells the woman he knows she has had five husbands. He doesn’t decry this as sinful or accuse her of anything. Her husbands could have died and/or left her because she couldn’t have children. Jesus understands her and why she has been ostracized. He does not call her a sinner, which, as we know, Jesus does! He routinely tells people they are clean from their sins or to go forth and sin no more. At no point does Jesus say anything about sin to this woman. He feels her pain, notes that she has had five husbands, and says nothing more about it.
In our time, as in the time of Jesus, there are so many people who have been and are being cast out and ostracized for myriad reasons. This is an excellent opportunity to proclaim that Jesus calls us to be in relationship with and show love to those who have been and are being ostracized and to center the ways people of Asian descent, Chinese descent in particular, are being harmed by racism as a result of fear-mongering about COVID-19. We can speak truth to this moment, explaining to our people that this is not a Chinese virus, it is not an Asian virus, it is a virus that attacks all people and there is no reason to aim our fear and anger at people of Asian or Chinese descent. Jesus shows us that in God’s kingdom, not only is there no room for racism and prejudice, but God specifically centers those who have been victims of hate and fear. We are called to go and do likewise.
From a pastor living in Seattle, in a center of the epidemic, I highly advise you (if you haven't already) to get with your leadership teams and your people and make preparations for what you will do if your local health organizations begin to advise you to not hold gatherings of more than 50 people and for people who are at highest risk to practice social distancing. Many of our faith communities are canceling worship and finding other ways to worship. One of the issues with COVID-19 is people can have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, so holding gatherings with people who appear healthy can spread the virus. While most people who have COVID-19 will be fine, we don’t want to expose people at risk of developing the virus in its more severe forms nor do we want to overload our health systems. We’re at a point here where it took hours for a nurse hotline to call me back because people are flooding all of our systems because they are afraid. We need to be calm but cautious.
Prayers for all of you in this time of stress and worry.
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This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.