Following Christ's Suffering Service
by the Reverend Noel E. Bordador
A sermon preached on Palm Sunday, 2013.
During the week, I work with people living with HIV/AIDS. There was a priest, now saint, who was proclaimed the patron saint of people living with HIV/AIDS and those who care for them. The saint is known to us as Father Damien of Moloka’i, Hawaii. He lived more than a hundred years ago and so he really did not minister to people with AIDS. Instead, he cared for people who were living with and dying of leprosy. During his time, there was no cure for leprosy and those who had leprosy were treated as outcasts, and confined to a place where the world would not have anything to do with it. He was named as the patron saint of persons living with HIV/AIDS because people living with HIV/AIDS are often stigmatized. I do remember that to be specially true in the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. A gay Latino friend of mine, Santiago, was hospitalized because of AIDS-related complications. People were still scared of AIDS. I remember visiting him in isolation with my friend Jack and together we bathed him because the nurse refused to do so, refused to be in contact with him, refused to touch him.
Late last year, I had a chance to visit the cathedral in Honolulu where Father Damien was ordained priest and where he first celebrated his first Mass shortly before he volunteered to be banished from the world, exiling himself to the leper colony in Moloka’i knowing full well he could no longer return to the world he left. [In fact, once when his Bishop tried to visit him,but was forbidden to enter the leper colony so the bishop remained on the ship, and Father Damien had to ride on a small boat which came close to the ship but he couldn’t board it. To talk to his bishop he had to yell from the boat.] On Thanksgiving Day last year, I made a pilgrimage to that small cathedral and touched and kissed the very Altar this priest touched and kissed and received the Body and Blood of Christ before his self-imposed exile in a place of death and place of no return. Before that Altar, I had a chance to reflect on the life of this holy man. Why did this man choose to dedicate his life in the service of lepers knowing full well it would mean isolation from the rest of the world, loneliness, and death? Why? He embraced a life of suffering and went to his slow death because he felt that the offering of his own life for the sake of others would bring goodness and the redemptive love of God to many.
I carry a picture of him in my Prayer Book and a piece of wood of his coffin to remind myself that love is more than just a sentimental feeling or inspiration. Rather, love involves making a deliberate and difficult choice to offer oneself for the service of others. Love is not convenient for it often involves suffering on the part of the lover for the sake of the beloved. Above all, love sets aside the love of self to bring joy and life for one’s beloved.
That is the message of the Cross. Jesus sets aside his own life in the spirit of self-forgetfulness and self-denial in order to bring joy and salvation to God’s beloved world. He gives up the choice to pursue a life of comfort and privilege and instead, he embraces a life of suffering service. Not all suffering is noble. Not all suffering is good. The Cross is not a glorification of suffering and pain. Nevertheless, the Cross points to a suffering that is ennobling and meaningful when it is undertaken in love to bring about salvation of others from the darkness gripping their lives and their world. This week, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby said in his enthronement sermon “The more the Church is authentically heeding Jesus’ call, leaving its securities, speaking and acting clearly and taking risks, the more the Church suffers.” The Church is called to suffering service.
This is a rather difficult message to hear especially when our culture glorifies the “self,” when the emphasis in our culture is “me first,” “my own happiness,” “my own personal development.” The call of the Cross is the opposite- to give up our own security, to look for happiness not only for ourselves but also for others- something that would involve self-denial, self-forgetfulness and suffering for the sake of others. The Cross is not about being defeatism or masochism. It is about the power of suffering love and service that brings redemption and goodness. As the new Pope Francis said, “…authentic power is service.”
We are called by Christ to take up our Cross. Jesus may not be calling us to take the same Cross he gave Damien but he imposes a Cross on each of us in that we are called to offer our lives, to unite ourselves with the Crucified Savior to bring about some goodness that would redeem some darkness in the world we live in.
This week we call Holy Week, all images in church have been either covered or removed. The only image not covered is the wood of the Cross; our attention is intensely on the Cross to contemplate not only the love of God who gives up his life for us on the awful Tree. But we do well to contemplate our own calling to share in the Cross.
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect, Monday in Holy Week, Book of Common Prayer, 1979)
© 2013 Noel E. Bordador
Noel Bordador is a queer Filipino worker-priest in the Episcopal Diocese of New York.
Photo of Father Damien, 1889, by William Brigham a few weeks before his death.
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