I Am the Disciple Who Runs and Hides

Bishop Cate has asked us to join in with the national Episcopal Church today to observe the International Day of Prayer for South Sudan.

She’s asked us to use the readings from the feast of the Martyrs of the Sudan, which commemorates some Roman Catholic and Episcopal bishops who were martyred in 1983. Since it’s a feast of martyrs, we have our red paraments and vestments, and our hymns and prayers reflect the theme as well.

South Sudan is in political and military crisis right now, a situation more dire and costly to life than any since the days of civil war between north and south that rocked the nation from 1983-2005.

South Sudan as a country is only three years old, just barely getting on its feet as an independent nation.

Internal conflict between the president and vice-president of South Sudan has mushroomed into armed violence that has killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands, rendering them refugees within their own country.

Old ethnic rivalries and conflicts have reared their heads. With the northerners no longer serving as a common enemy, the country that looked toward the future with such hope just a short time ago is now splashed across the headlines with words like “human rights violations,” “war crimes,” “rising death tolls,” and “mass atrocities.”

Part of what makes this, and so many other conflicts around the world, hard to deal with is the fact that no one party holds the moral high ground, and no one party is unprovoked.

All are justified in their outrage, and all have responded with violence. This is not a black and white issue, and we prefer issues to be black and white when it comes to moral judgments.

The gray areas are the hardest to navigate when it comes to moral discernment, whether those gray areas are in geopolitics or in our own personal lives.

The bottom line is that a lot of senseless violence happening in South Sudan right now, thousands of innocent people being beaten, raped, and killed.

We feel unequipped to handle such a situation, guilty for the luxury and ease we enjoy in our own lives, and helpless to respond in any meaningful way.

I felt so unequipped that I actually tried to foist this sermon off on our Deacon.

When I saw that Bishop Cate had asked us to confront the situation in South Sudan from the pulpit this week, I said to Ron, “This would be an awesome week for you to preach at St. Thomas and St. Luke’s.”

Unfortunately, or rather fortunately because it forces me to confront my own insecurities and anxieties, Ron is serving at the Cathedral this morning, so I’m all you’ve got.

But as I was talking with some clergy colleagues this week who were feeling similarly apprehensive about preaching on this topic, we realized something together.

The truth is that we all, clergy and laity alike, are better equipped to face the darkness than we realize, and for this reason: there is an act of senseless violence right at the heart of our faith.

Our Savior Jesus Christ was arrested, beaten and executed on the Cross for no good reason.

He and his followers were no real political threat to Rome and certainly no military threat.

He was an innocent man killed because of prejudice, fear and hunger for power, just like so many of the people dying in South Sudan today.

And so when we are battered by the emotions that surge through us reading the news reports of women church workers seeking refuge at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Bor only to be raped and gunned down at close range, we have no choice but to go to the Cross.

And the Cross is the place that we will simultaneously find inspiration and challenge, hope confronting hopelessness, pain wedded to possibility.

We are disciples of Jesus Christ, and when it came to the crucifixion, the disciples, feeling as helpless as we do in the face of extreme suffering, divided into two groups.

On one side were the disciples who ran away.

I don’t blame them, in fact I identify with them deeply.

They were in fear for their own lives—who was to say that they weren’t next to be strung up on a cross?

They were full of disappointment and disbelief that Jesus, whose power they had seen displayed in a hundred healings and miracles in the last three years, showed no signs of exerting his power to escape his fate.

And perhaps the deepest motive of all, they didn’t think they could bear to see their friend suffer excruciating pain and die before their very eyes.

No one should be asked to bear that.

And so they ran away and hid.

But there was another group, a smaller group, that stayed.

They followed him from the Garden to the court of the High Priest to Pilate’s judgment seat through the streets of Jerusalem all the way to Golgotha.

They fought through the fear, opened themselves to the pain of seeing his suffering, and stood at the foot of the Cross.

They could do nothing to help him, nothing to stop or delay or hasten his inevitable death, but they refused to abandon him.

It could have cost them their own lives, and it definitely cost them broken hearts to see Jesus go through this, but their loyalty and courage somehow gave him the strength to be witnesses to this disaster.

It had to be the worst experience of their lives. To stand helplessly by while their dearest friend and the radiant conduit of God’s light that they had followed joyfully for three years was tortured and murdered by an impersonal, totalitarian state—it’s hard to imagine how they endured it.

But because they were witnesses to the Cross, they gained the opportunity to be witnesses to the resurrection.

The disciples who ran away would also be included in the resurrection, Jesus would never leave them out.

But those who stood so bravely on the hill at the foot of the Cross on Good Friday experienced a healing on the third day that had a depth and profundity that those who missed the first half of the story would never have the chance to know.

And so when it comes to the suffering and death than run rampant in our own world, the people who are dying in South Sudan and in Indiana and all around the world today in the seemingly unfettered reign of violence that plagues us, we have to ask ourselves which group of disciples we are in.

Are we the ones who run away in fear?

The ones who hide for fear of our own emotional equilibrium being disturbed?

The ones who say, “I can’t fix any of this, so I’m just going to turn away?”

The ones who simply refuse to look on others’ pain because we guard our hearts from being broken so fastidiously that they become shrunken and hard and cold?

Or do we follow Jesus to Golgotha, whether that is in Indiana or Juba or Bor?

Do we stand at the foot of the Cross, turning our attention and our hearts and our minds to the profound spiritual and moral responsibility of being witness to the presence of darkness in the world?

We cannot help if we do not know what is happening, and we cannot know what is happening if we fear the pain of witnessing the crucifixion as it happens again and again around the world.

I am by far the most guilty, the one who most needs to hear and be convicted by this message.

I so often fall into the selfishness of focusing exclusively on the drama of my own spiritual journey, on the little circle of my own work and ministry, trusting some other prophetic type of person to pay attention to the suffering of oppressed and starving people around the world.

And so I am grateful to be called to preach this message to myself as well as you of not the option or the suggestion, but the requirement to be informed and involved with my brothers and sisters around the world who do not travel to Golgotha by choice, but by the evil forces and tragic circumstances that drag them there.

It is a daunting task to open ourselves to witness the pain and tragedy that is happening in South Sudan.

But remember that while standing at the foot of the Cross in witness to suffering is a sacred duty, it has a larger end than simply observing injustice and death.

We commit ourselves to being part of the story of the crucifixion so we can be part of the story of resurrection.

How do we do that for South Sudan? In some very simple ways.

First, we learn and research and pay attention to what’s really happening on the ground. A great resource for that is the American Friends of the Episcopal Church of Sudan. You’ll find a wealth of information and links so you can become well-informed.

Second, over the next few weeks, Bishop Cate will be leading us in a fundraising effort. If you watched her video on our Facebook page, you saw her explain it. The Diocesan office will send us some heart shaped pins that we can buy and sell for $5 each.

Because of Bishop Cate’s leadership on this project, the entire $5 for each pin will go directly to South Sudan for humanitarian aid, with no funding at all being diverted to overhead cost.

And last and most importantly, we have the same tool available to us that the original disciples had: prayer.

That is what we’re gathered here this morning to do, to bring the pain of the people of South Sudan and our pain at witnessing their suffering to the foot of the Cross, offering it up to Jesus and asking that he transform it into new life and resurrection.

We in the Diocese of Indianapolis have a special relationship with the people of South Sudan because they are our companion diocese.

They are among the closest of our brothers and sisters around the world.

We see the Body of Christ broken anew each day in some way, in our own neighborhoods, and across the globe.

When one part of the Body of Christ hurts, we all hurt.

But when one part of the Body of Christ is healed, renewed, called into resurrection, we all greet rebirth on the dawn of the third day.