Sermon preached March 8, 2009
Scripture Readings: Psalm 22:23-31; Mark 8:31-38
My dad died this week – he passed away on Monday and his memorial service was on Friday. Those flowers in front of the altar are from his service. I am going to say a few things about this this morning, but the very first thing I want to say is “thank you.” Ever since I shared with you my father’s terminal diagnosis, you have been amazing in offering words of comfort, love and care, as well as your prayers. Since my father’s death, there have been so many kind expressions of sympathy – verbally or by card, and when I looked out on the congregation for my father’s service on Friday I was bowled over by how many of you took your time to be there for my family and me. You are wonderful and amazing, and I thank you for that.
My dad died on Monday. I saw him that day, and when I did I knew it would not be long. I have been with enough people at the end of life to have some idea of the kinds of things that happen toward the very end. That day my dad was completely unresponsive. He stared straight ahead, though his eyes were so clouded that I don’t think he could really see anything. His mouth hung open and he had begun that breathing pattern that I have seen so often as people close in on death. When my dad’s wife called later that day to say that my dad had died, I was sad, and also glad that this final stage did not last longer. I have seen it go for three or four days and those are always difficult days.
One of the things that my family and I have said over and over these past couple of months is that we are grateful that my dad did not suffer more in his dying. He seemed fairly comfortable most of the time, and experienced little pain as his cancer began to take his body. He suffered, but it could have been so much worse had his pain been worse.
Suffering. We do not escape life without experiencing suffering. As I think about this I think about what our friends Bob and Sandy Almquist are going through. Bob was out walking a week ago this past Thursday, walking liked he loved to do, he was out walking when he fell and hit his head. At first the doctors were not sure that Bob would even make it and his prognosis remains very uncertain. What suffering they are experiencing. There are others here who have stories of heartbreaking suffering.
In one of my Lenten reflections I share a poem a wrote I few months ago, and I want to share it with you this morning. I told you we don’t get through life without suffering!
There are days
when the truest
statement in the
He descended into hell,
and when the
first truth of
its most profound:
Life is suffering.
Both also promise
a way forward.
The eightfold path.
that the way
And the stay
in hell was
This is not a hopeless poem, but a poem which acknowledges the reality of suffering and its depth, a poem which sees that suffering can be more than physical pain, but can be a suffering in our souls and spirits. There seem to be days when the Buddha had it just right: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering (In the Buddha’s Words, 76). These words from the Buddhist tradition find their echo in our Scriptures. We read a part of Psalm 22, and will have more to say about it shortly. The Psalm begins: My God, my God, why have your forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning. Words of suffering.
For the Bible, suffering was a conundrum. We could say that suffering leads people into a wilderness time, a wilderness place - a place of uncertainty, of difficulty, of challenge, of risk. For many people in biblical times suffering posed a significant religious issue. The question they pondered, and a question many today ponder is “why do good people suffer?” For many in Biblical times, the answer was, “they don’t,” or at least they don’t for long. For many in Biblical times there was in life a relatively simple equation – do good, obey God, and you will prosper, if not right away, eventually. The first chapter of Joshua might be an example of such thinking. The Israelites are told there that if they are faithful in following the law, they will “be successful” wherever they go. For some in biblical times, if life was too full of suffering for a person, others might suspect that the person had some hidden fault that was part of the cause of their suffering. One of the reasons the crucifixion of Jesus was such a religious scandal was that some thought such a shameful death must mean that there was something wrong with Jesus. We will explore this more next week. One more thing we should note, however. Many of us carry some similar theological thinking around inside us. When things go wrong for others, don’t we sometimes wonder if they have done something wrong?
While the Bible contains places where this simple theology of equating goodness with success can be found, at its best, the Bible presents a more complex picture of the dilemma of suffering. At its best the Bible provides no easy answers about why people suffer. In Matthew 5 Jesus says that God “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous” (45). Suffering would appear to be an equal opportunity employer. If we want to equate being good with a lack of suffering, in any simplistic manner, we are outside the best of the Bible’s thinking.
So suffering happens to us all, no matter how good we are, no matter how careful we might be, no matter how deep our faith or our prayer life. When we suffer, whether it is physical pain or emotional or spiritual pain, we enter a wilderness time and place – a time of uncertainty, of difficulty, of challenge, of risk – a time when our faith can be challenged. But the wilderness in the Bible is not only such a time and place, it is also a time and place where we can encounter God more deeply. Does the Bible offer us any hope that we can make any meaning out of suffering? How does the Bible and Christian faith help us suffering human beings? The Bible and Christian faith offer some thoughts about how the wilderness of suffering can be a place where we meet God, a place where God heals some suffering, but where God also helps us derive some meaning from some of our suffering. I want to offer four quick points, then wrap up.
The most important Christian and biblical affirmation about suffering is that God never abandons us in the midst of our hurt, our pain, our suffering. In response to those who might see suffering as abandonment by God, the Psalmist offers this. “God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; God did not hide God’s face from me, but heard when I cried out. When we suffer, when we hurt, we often feel terribly alone. God assures us that we are not alone, that God does not shy away from the most difficult moments in our lives, but walks with us.
Having said that all of us experience suffering, I want to make sure I also offer the Biblical word that not all suffering is inevitable, that not all suffering is simply to be endured, but that we have healing work to do in the world. Psalm 22 offers a vision of the world as God would have it. “The poor shall eat and be satisfied.” This brief verse points to a larger truth about the Bible and Christian faith. The world as it is is not how God would have it. Rather, God dreams a different world – a world of justice and peace, beauty and goodness, forgiveness and reconciliation, compassion and love. God dreams of this world and works for this world, and we are invited to work with God. “Dominion belongs to the Lord” the Psalmist proclaims. He is not making a statement that everything that is happening is happening because God wants it to happen that way. The Psalmist is making a statement about what matters most in the world. The Psalmist is arguing that God’s way will win out. We are invited to be a part of that way. Jesus tells his disciples in Mark 8 to take up their cross. This is a complex symbol for Christians, and we usually equate taking up our cross with suffering. But what if, instead of asking his disciples simply to suffer, Jesus is asking them to take up their task in making God’s dream for the world more real? Be a part of God’s healing work in the world. Do what you can to alleviate preventable suffering – and there is so much suffering in the world that we can do something about – hunger, homelessness, the suffering of the planet, hatred, war. We need not let all suffering stand as it is. We can use the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
Even when we are loving, even when we are doing our best to alleviate that suffering that can be changed, some suffering will happen to us. That’s life. There are times when some of our suffering is even self-inflicted. If we are suffering from loneliness, sometimes we have pushed people away. If we are suffering from the dregs of the day, maybe we have contributed to the difficulty of the day by our own attitude. In such cases, we should see how we can change some forms of suffering by changing ourselves. Even then, there will be suffering that we cannot change – loved ones die, hatred continues even as we work against it, disease ravages people’s lives. When we are caught in situations where we are suffering, we might always ask how we can learn and grow. When we experience the sorrow of losing someone close, we should let that experience make us more deeply caring. When we experience the pain of being left out, we should become more sensitive to others who might be left out. Suffering can be meaningful if we learn and grow amidst the pain of it.
Finally, Christian faith encourages us not to simply run away from suffering. Sometimes we can learn and grow through our experiences of suffering. Sometimes suffering is a part of the process of doing good, of seeking to change the world. Human history is replete with stories of people working for good who suffered – Martin Luther King, Jr. Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Susan B. Anthony, Vaclav Havel. Doing good, joining God’s healing work in the world does not mean we will suffer, but we might. Then the encouragement is not to run from the suffering, but to keep doing the good in spite of the suffering.
Jesus is the prime biblical example of the person who risked suffering to do good. The predictions of death by Jesus are always a challenge. Did Jesus see his mission in the world primarily as one of dying? I am not sure he did. Maybe Jesus saw his mission as proclaiming the good news of God’s love and justice, of bringing hope and healing to others, but he also knew what a collision course this put him on with the empire. He would also be aware that when goodness collided with the empire, goodness usually lost, and crucifixion was one answer the empire had for those whose idea of goodness and God were different from the imperial theology. So maybe Jesus was letting his disciples know that following the way of God’s goodness in the world could lead to suffering. Take up the cross anyway. Listen to where God is calling you to follow God’s dream for the world and follow. Take up your cross, whatever that may be.
I would like to end with a spectacular story this morning, but I don’t have one for you. Given this past week, and especially these past few days, it is a wonder that I am even up here making some sense. All I can offer in the way of a last word about the wilderness of suffering as a place where we can also meet God is my own experience over these past few months.
There was suffering in my life, the dying and then death of a father, my brother, sister and I coming to terms with the complexity of our relationships to him – our parents divorced over twenty years ago. I hope I listened well to God and sought ways to mitigate or even alleviate some of that suffering. My sister, brother and I talked a lot. I visited my dad frequently and fed him at times, trying to keep him comfortable. Some of the suffering of the past couple of months was unavoidable. I continue to try and learn and grow from this experience. Seeking to do good, I could not turn away from the suffering going on around me, but sought to keep on doing the good. In the midst of it all, I believe God was with me, that God did not turn away from my pain and hurt.
Suffering indeed leads us into a wilderness, but it can be a wilderness where God is found in new ways. Amen.