Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. (1 Peter 5.7-9)
As every preacher and churchgoer knows, gloomy topics rarely play well in the pulpit. That’s why looking at Sunday’s readings makes me glad I’m not one of thousands of ministers tasked with synthesizing them. Other than the psalms—which exuberantly extol God’s majesty and love—the texts have a decidedly unsettling undertow. The Old Testament reading, Genesis 18.22-23, gives us Abraham bargaining with God to spare Sodom, his nephew Lot’s recently chosen abode, if a quota of just people can be found there. Abraham starts at 50 and works down to 10; while his concern and courage are touching, knowing the final outcome lends a discordant note of futility to the story.
The Gospel revisits The Sermon on the Mount’s conclusion (Matthew 7.15-29), where Jesus warns us to beware of false prophets—calling them wolves in sheep’s clothing—and promises those who abuse God’s name to advance evil agendas will meet with doom. He compares them to a foolish man who builds a house on sand, ignoring the inevitable day when hostile weather destroys his wobbly structure. Instead, Jesus says, we should emulate the wise builder, whose house survives tumult because it stands on solid rock. Lastly, the New Testament reading (1 Peter 5.1-11) picks up the theme of integrity, counseling us to “clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for God opposes the proud.” (v5) In this way, Peter says, we will withstand temptation and suffering that threaten our faith. All in all, the texts offer scant room for feel-good sermonizing.
With the readings heavily leaning toward the dark side, one has to feel for the preachers challenged to present them in an uplifting light. While I have every confidence the best will, my mind flashed on the sad picture Lennon and McCartney paint in “Eleanor Rigby”: Father McKenzie, writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear. Naturally, that triggered the refrain:
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?
The lament somehow brings new resonance, relevance, and unity to the texts. The people they involve—Abraham, Jesus’s listeners, and Peter’s readers—stand apart from a culture given over to violence, hypocrisy, and pride. In many ways, they lead solitary existences born of swimming against tides of reckless power and callous indifference. Yet I would argue faith makes them uncommon, rather than lonely. It’s not a matter of where they come from: they’re there because they’ve always been there. Nor is it a question of where they belong: they belong where they are because that’s where they’re needed. In a world teetering on self-destruction, their compassion, strength, and humility become control rods that reduce the likelihood of total meltdown. The courage of their conviction is wedded to the integrity of their belief that seeking justice and serving others will defeat socio-religious waywardness. Truly, they are uncommon people. And so are we who believe and behave like them.
Being uncommon doesn’t mean we’re wrong. It means we’re different. And being different—authentically different in ways that radically alter how we think, act, and speak—subjects us to complications that come with uncommon commitment to a higher calling. When loving God and our neighbors without restraint becomes our raison d’être, we take on concerns few care about. Heightened awareness to human frailty sharpens our ability to detect poisonous traits concealed in popular trends. Summoning the courage and integrity to speak truth to power with sincere humility isolates us from the apathetic silent majority, as well as belligerent, noisy malcontents. If Jesus’s example teaches us anything, it proves an uncommon life founded on love, faith, truth, and justice exacts great sacrifices, incurs much anxiety, and frequently experiences lonely, troubled times. As followers of Christ, we should anticipate these costs of discipleship. Yet, unlike Jesus—Who was “full of grace and truth” (John 1.14)—mortal logic exposes us to temptations and sufferings that convince us we’re alone in the struggle to do as Christ commands.
Peter closes his first letter by addressing common misgivings of an uncommon life. “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you,” he writes. “Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.” (1 Peter 5.7-9) We consciously release all of our doubts, fears, and worries to Christ’s care—our pessimism about the world, fear of failure and rejection, worries about past, current, and future problems—all of it—because nothing can shake our confidence in Christ’s love. We keenly guard our thoughts and emotions against opposition enticing us to question our faith, whether it intimidates us with lion’s roars or camouflages predatory motives in sheep’s clothing. Then we counter feelings of isolation by remembering many like us confront comparable adversaries. “You know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering,” Peter says.
We’re everywhere. LGBT believers whose families and faith communities condemn and turn against them are everywhere. Women barred from realizing their full potential in ministry and society are everywhere. Christians fighting addictions and unhealthy compulsions are everywhere, as are those shackled by traumatic pasts and abusive relationships. We have brothers and sisters all over the world—some known, most not—undergoing the same kinds of suffering we face for the same reason. Daring to be different carries heavy costs. Yet the heaviest costs of being true to Christ wither in comparison to its rewards.
All the uncommon people, where do we all come from? Where do we all belong? We come from everywhere and belong everywhere because we are everywhere.
We answer times of lonely struggle by remembering brothers and sisters all over the world endure similar tests due to their uncommon commitment.
Postscript: “I Need You to Survive”
At first I hesitated to attach this gut-wrenching treatment of Hezekiah Walker’s powerful plea for Christian solidarity. Yet, as uncommon people, we are called to a common struggle against mindless tragedy and callous indifference. Knowing we’re everywhere and drawing on shared strength, we can defeat evil that plagues our world. “I Need You to Survive.”