The dark side of preaching the cross of Christ.
Epistle Reading: Philippians 2:1-13
For Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011: Year A−Ordinary 26
I have a friend whose life was shattered by sexual abuse. Then, after a few years, I watched as she slowly put the pieces back together. Now, she is a beautiful testament to wholeness.
You Can, Because I Did
When I spoke to her about her healing process, she explained how she was able to overcome the tragedy when she became a therapist. She realized how her experience allowed her to help others heal from their sexual abuse.
Whether she would say the actual words or not, she would be able to stand beside them, in their grief, agony and betrayal, and communicate, “I know how you’re feeling. I know the pain. I have been there. You can heal from this. I know you can, because I did.”
There is something powerful about having someone stand next to us in our difficulties. When the alcoholic tells stories in his sobriety or when the sheltered woman can recall her days on the streets, there is potency in the shared experience of hardship. There is strength in solidarity.
I think that’s why the redemptive message of the gospel has been so important. As Philippians 2 reminds us in this beautiful poetry, Jesus took the form of a servant. In his humanity and humility, he walked beside us, even to the point of death. Because of this, we know that nothing can separate us from that divine love in Jesus Christ.
And yet, I have to stop and ask a difficult question at this point, because there is a dark side to recalling and reliving this redemptive narrative. In our history, have we, as Christians, glorified suffering too much?
I have heard stories that make me shudder. Victims of clergy pedophilia have been encouraged to forgive (and not seek legal action) in the name of Christ. Women and men have undergone abuse and then religious leaders told them to return to their spouses, because their reward will be waiting in heaven. In these cases, their suffering was uplifted, a divine reward was promised, and that allowed injustice to flourish.
The Hardest Question
In all of this, I wonder, do we wear our crosses too proudly? Are there ways in which we take this message of Philippians 2—this great emptying—and use it to further weigh down people who are oppressed? Has it been used to overlook the difficulties that people endure? Do we too often point to the glory that is to come in order to ignore oppression and avoid the difficult work of confronting injustice?
Carol Howard Merritt is a pastor at Western Presbyterian Church, an intergenerational congregation in Washington, D.C. Western’s deep commitment to serving the poor in the city has helped to initiate programs like Miriam’s Kitchen, a social service program for the homeless which provides a hot, nutritious breakfast and dinner for over 200 men and women each weekday. Carol is the author of Reframing Hope (Alban, 2010) and Tribal Church, (Alban, 2007). Carol is the co-host of God Complex Radio with Landon Whitsitt. And she blogs for the Huffington Post. Carol is a frequent conference speaker. Her blog is at TribalChurch.org.