Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
I don’t know about you, but there have been a number of times in my life when I have just wanted to disappear and hide in the face of difficult things. I remember one incident when I was about 11 years old. My father and I got into one of the worst fights we had ever had. After it was over, my parents got into a huge fight because my mother was of the opinion that my dad had overreacted. She came to my defense and that just made him even angrier. The tension of that argument lasted for weeks and at one point I remember hiding in my room because I was so fearful that my parents might separate because of the argument I had had with my father. I was young and I didn’t yet know the power of reconciliation and forgiveness.
I also remember my first day working at a parish in the mission district of San Francisco, when the rector of the parish gently encouraged me to wear my clerical collar when coming to church because he said, it would serve to protect me from some of the dangers of the neighborhood. I felt like I was hiding behind my collar. And then, of course, I really wanted to hide when later I learned to truly love the people in that neighborhood and was ashamed of my shallow response to their plight.
Throughout my years of ministry, I have been amazed at the different ways in which people suffer – whether it is a physical suffering due to illness or abuse or a psychological or spiritual suffering brought on by something like abandonment or a significant death. There are any of a number of events that can shatter people’s lives and cause pain. And at times, like everyone else, I have wanted to simply disappear and hide from them because the suffering of the world can seem so overwhelming and the lives of those who suffer can seem so impossibly hopeless.
Sometimes I think that the only thing that keeps me going in the face of suffering, the only thing that keeps me from disappearing and hiding, are the celebrations of the Church – baptisms and marriages, or holidays like Christmas and Easter. They give me hope. But at times the tales of woe that people share can almost leave you in disbelief because it is so hard to realize that one family or one individual can bear so much.
But suffering is part of the human condition. And it seems to me that people of faith can respond to the suffering of the world in one of two ways.
The first can be symbolized by a television commercial that was well known when I was a child. When you see someone drop two tablets into a glass of water and they start to fizz up, what do you hear in your head? Well, if you are of a certain age you hear, “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh, what a relief it is.” Sometimes all that people of faith do is to pray to God for relief to help us escape our human ills and troubles. We beg God to keep us from the horrors and suffering of life. We look to God as a sort of universal Alka Selzer tablet to eliminate or, at least, protect us from trouble.
This response to suffering is powerful and attractive because it promises to do exactly what we want . . . take the suffering away. But it’s not always the response that is best for us.
That’s why there is a second response to suffering by people of faith. It is a response that seeks to find a purpose for it. It seeks to grow from suffering. This response is, in fact, the response of Jesus in our gospel for this morning.
Mark writes: “Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of man must suffer, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Jesus’ suffering had a purpose. Yes, it is true that even Jesus sought relief. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed to have his burden taken from him. But in that prayer, he also said, “if it is possible.” Because Jesus accepted the Father’s will for his life. Jesus knew that because he offered his whole life, even his suffering would have meaning. It had a purpose and that purpose was to turn a senseless, brutal, meaningless execution into a sacrifice for the benefit of others.
Jesus also taught this to his disciples. He said, “If anyone would come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The implication is that Jesus suffered, and so his followers may be called to suffer too. If they are, then they must learn to make that suffering have meaning and purpose. Jesus suffered to serve, so we suffer to serve, too. The thought is not exactly a thrilling one.
But it gets worse. Because if you search through the New Testament you will find that Paul actually calls upon us to rejoice in sufferings. Paul boasts of those things that make his life miserable and at times almost unlivable. If a modern psychologist were to interview Paul, she would probably hospitalize him and diagnose him as a danger to himself and others. But, in fact, that is part of the divine nature of Paul’s writings. Because Paul saw a purpose in his suffering and in the suffering of the people in the churches he founded. He was able to see how his struggles strengthened him, how his pain emboldened him to identify with and do something about the pain and suffering of others. He did that because he could also see through his suffering. He could see that sacrificing in order to serve others was not merely pointless human struggle. Rather, it was actually something of God. Paul could see that even obstacles to happiness in life – obstacles such as physical pain, or mental anguish, or broken hearts – could become stepping-stones to fulfilling, meaningful lives. Paul was able to see that if suffering could not be relieved, it can at least be transformed if we find a way for that suffering to benefit others. That is what we learn through the ministry of our Savior.
For Paul, God was not a divine Alka-Seltzer. The God he knew – the God we know – is one who suffered in Jesus and who calls upon us to identify with and care for others who suffer, whether they are people who live down the block, whether they are the inner city poor in our country, or whether they are immigrants fleeing violence and poverty in their homeland; we are called to give sacrificially in whatever way God moves our heart to do.
Now, I want to clarify something, because it inevitably comes up whenever I preach about suffering. Am I saying that we should seek out suffering? Or that if we are suffering we should just bear it as the lot which we have been given by God? No, I am not. Life is a beautiful gift and it should be enjoyed and rejoice in. What I am saying, though, is that there are different ways to enjoy life. Different aspects of life to rejoice in. And sometimes, when tragedy strikes us and it is a tragedy we cannot hide from or make go away, we are called to find purpose in it by praying for God to guide us into an understanding of how our struggles might be used to better the lives of others.
I am also saying that sometimes God calls us to make sacrifices on behalf of others in order to, with God’s help, relieve them of their suffering.
In his play, The Angel That Troubled the Waters, Thornton Wilder writes of a sick physician who wished to be healed. As God’s angel informs the doctor that it is not possible for him to be healed, the angel explains that perhaps through his illness, the physician may better understand the illnesses of others. And then the angel says, “In love’s service only wounded soldiers can serve.” We all live with some degree of suffering. And if we can find relief from that suffering we should certainly take it. But sometimes God also calls us to use our suffering – in whatever form it may take – to serve others with the good news of a God who has experienced agony, aloneness, and pain and who offers us not relief, but meaning and purpose.
In one of my favorite passages of scripture, Paul reflects on the difficulties of his life and says, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts….” May we also come to know the power of God that can not only sustain us through life’s trials but give those trials meaning and purpose.