September 20, 2020 – The 16th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 20A
© 2020 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here. (The sermon begins around 23:00.)
“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” Those words have come to symbolize Muhammad Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War and, more specifically, his opposition to a government that would draft young black men and send them, in his words, “10,000 miles from home [to] drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam [while] so-called Negro people in [his home town of] Louisville [were] treated like dogs and denied simple human rights.” Ali knew that his service in the military would not put his life at risk—that, instead, he would be trotted out as part of the Army’s public relations game in the same way that his predecessor in the ring, Joe Lewis, had been used to drum up support for World War II. But Ali wasn’t willing to play their game. He wasn’t willing to accept the privilege of suffering on their behalf.
On April 28, 1967, when he reported for his scheduled induction into the military, Ali refused three times to step forward when his name was called, and it cost him. It cost him his heavyweight championship belt, his license to fight in the ring, and the esteem of white America. Ali believed that the government was asking black men and boys to suffer for the sake of a country that would not even recognize their basic humanity, and he refused to take part. Though he is now celebrated as an accomplished athlete and a beloved hero, sports commentator Dan Le Batard has noted more than once that Ali only became popular when Parkinson’s Disease robbed him of his voice.
Today, we hear what the apostle Paul has to say to those who suffer: “God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.” Those are Paul’s words to the Christians in Philippi, who faced persecution because of their faith, but what would he say to Muhammad Ali? What would the white, Christian preachers of the twentieth century, who so often used Paul to reinforce their worldview, say to the man whom they insisted on calling Cassius Clay? What would a present-day preacher like me—a privileged white man, who stands in a pulpit insulated from the rallies and riots and racial strife of our day and so far untouched by the ravages of a pandemic—what would I dare to say about Paul’s exhortation to suffer and to count that suffering as a God-given privilege?
Sometimes words only make sense to the people to whom they were originally entrusted. Maybe Paul has nothing to say to those who are asked to fight and die for a country that treats them as second-class citizens, to those who are asked to submit obediently to the police who murder them with impunity, to those who are sent into poultry plants and slaughterhouses in the midst of a pandemic because a chicken in every pot is still the American way. But Philippians is still in our holy book, and, no matter what Paul intended, his words are still proclaimed in our congregations as if they belong to the Lord. So it is our obligation—our duty as people of faith and as citizens of a predominantly Christian society—to wrestle with these ancient words and to see if they have anything to say to us and to our world today.
What could make these words good news not only for a privileged few but for everyone? What must be true about Paul and his circumstance and about the Philippians and their circumstance and about their love for each another in order for the apostle’s teaching to be received not as a violation but as a hopeful encouragement? In part, Paul’s words rang true because they were written not from a place of individual security but of mutual struggle. Although his chains were the consequences of his own free choices, the shackles that Paul wore were not merely for show or rhetorical effect. His life, as we heard in the opening of this passage, hung in the balance. A man who had enjoyed the freedom and privilege of Roman citizenship now faced the real possibility of death at the hands of the Empire.
While one’s own experience of suffering does not, in and of itself, give someone the authority to command others to endure their own suffering, Paul’s credibility on this point comes from something else. He wrote to the Philippians not only as one who had endured hardship but as one who recognized that his own suffering had become the source of his friends’ struggle—that their grief was the result of his grief. Paul wanted to relieve them of that burden. He wanted them to see that, if he was able to count his own suffering for Christ’s sake as a privilege, they, too, could endure whatever hardship they faced by seeing it as a gift from God.
That may have been some comfort for Paul’s friends in Philippi, where the apostle had spent time laboring beside them, but where in those words do we find comfort and encouragement for the church today? The critical struggle we face is not figuring out how to count as holy the sympathetic suffering we endure on behalf of friends who look like us and talk like us and live on the same side of town as us. We’re all too good at that. And we certainly don’t need any help telling those who endure hardships that they should count their suffering as the privilege that God has ordained for them. That’s been our besetting sin for millennia. If we are to find real encouragement in Paul’s words, we will only hear it when we, with God’s help, begin to unwrap and upturn our understanding of privilege. When we stop thinking of privilege as a gift that is supposed to shield us from suffering and start thinking of it as an obligation that propels us into suffering for the sake of others, we will know why Paul’s words are words of hope.
Paul may not have understood privilege in the same way that we do—as an accident of birth that we might devote to the work of the gospel—but he did understand the ways in which living in Christ reoriented the believer’s engagement with the world. For those whose faith-trained sight remains focused on “the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus,” whatever suffering we experience in this life is not seen as an obstacle to our union with God but as a means by which we share in the resurrection of the one who suffered on our behalf. For, if God is for us, who could be against us? If Christ is on our side, who could ever condemn us?
It is with that confidence of faith that Paul is able to proclaim later on in this same letter, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” That resurrection power is available to us as well. It is given to those who have faith enough even to suffer and die. If those of us, whose religion has been a shield from our own suffering and the suffering of others, cannot empty ourselves of that privilege and embrace the privilege of suffering, then we have not known the power of Christ’s resurrection. And, without knowing that power, we cannot live lives worthy of the gospel of Christ.
Paul has so much to say to us, but we cannot hear what he has to say if we pretend his words were written today. Instead, we must ask the Holy Spirit to help us hear afresh what was written so long ago. Paul does not and cannot ask people who suffer for the sake of unholy systems of oppression to dress that suffering up as if it were a gift from God. But he can and does invite those of us who live with the comfort of earthly privilege to consider the ways in which our faith in the God of Jesus Christ requires us to set aside our invulnerability and pursue suffering for the gospel’s sake. While those of us who have been insulated from the suffering of others cannot rightly claim kinship with those whose suffering we now seek to undo, we can, with God’s help, begin to recognize how we are called not to withdraw from that suffering but to embrace it—how we, like Paul, might even call our own suffering a gift from God—a privilege we bear for the sake of others.