Friends, we all have images in our memories of incredible suffering that has been inflicted upon people in our country and around the world, and we wonder, “why.” We are aware of suffering experienced due to human trafficking, ignorance, poverty, war, gender inequality, sexual expression, gun violence, and we wonder if it has to be this way. What is missing in the human will and consciousness that allows such situations to go on? Is it apathy, greed, frustration at trying and not succeeding to solve these problems, or all of the above?
We are all faced with the question—what’s the point of it all? What’s the point of all the suffering? Our religious tradition has tried to give answers to why people are subjected to so much pain—people ask; if God is so good, why does God allow this?
The readings for today could be considered, troublesome. We hear of servants “being crushed” in Isaiah; Hebrews says that Jesus too “was tested” and in our Gospel, two of Jesus’ closest friends and disciples are told they must drink the cup of suffering that he does. On face value, this is not a very consoling message. In all of these readings one person is called to suffer for others—and our sense of justice cries out—is that fair? But maybe, that is the wrong question. Both the servant and Jesus have moved past that question to a greater point—they are seeking to bring good out of the suffering.
The reality my friends, is that suffering simply is a part of human existence—we all get our crosses along the way; illness, job loss, marriages that fail, children that lose their way for our best efforts to guide them, and death—it comes to us all, one day.
I would offer that rather than get caught up in “why?” the suffering, “who caused it? –or “where should I lay the blame?”—the grander point seems to be, as our brother Jesus did, in bringing some good out of the suffering.
Many in this community had the opportunity this past week to hear the story of a woman pastor, ordained in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America), Nadia Bolz-Weber as she visited our community and challenged her listeners in several presentations to basically be true to themselves and true to the message of Jesus. She is a striking presence in her tall, lithe frame, ripped jeans, tattooed arms and colorful language, but even she says, that after five minutes, that loses its attraction.
What really stood out for me in Pastor Nadia’s presentation that I heard as she challenged a group of pastors here at the Lutheran Campus Center on Thursday afternoon was her absolute love for Jesus because of the way she has been first loved by him in all the incompleteness she finds in her life which includes alcoholism. She challenged all of us as pastors to be true to Jesus’ message as she shared that she is positively convicted by that message and that calls her to love God and find God in, as she says, “all the wrong people.” Of course we were challenged to do the same. She pastors House of All Sinners and Saints in Denver, CO and there, as here, at All Are One, all are welcome at the table. Her ministry, in many ways—I would say, is to bring good out of the suffering she finds in people’s lives.
The theology that wants to point to God as this avenger of evil—sacrificing the First Born Jesus, to a horrible death on the cross, to satisfy the need for reparation, is one that we should really leave behind, as I have said here, repeatedly. Jesus became one of us, not to let us know of God’s vengeance, but of God’s love. When we love totally, completely, and without exception; we are then called to do things that some people don’t always like or appreciate. We may have to step on toes to follow the dream of bringing justice to all, and as a result, some may want to crucify us, excommunicate us, or they may want to “set us straight.”
Being the “radical” woman in the Church that I am; I will from time to time get a letter from a well-meaning person delineating why I am wrong, some even expressing their concern for my eternal well-being, or their anger at what I am doing. But following our brother Jesus calls us to get above the negative feedback and follow the Spirit’s lead which will always show itself in peace, when we question the way to go.
And it will be important for us to come to a different view of God than we may have grown up with. I have mentioned to you in the past the work of Sr. Ilia Delio in her book, one of many, The Emergent Christ. I was reading a section this week where she is writing passionately about the love that our God has for each of us. Rather than holding our God at a distance so that this entity can remain more mysterious, as I understand was the intent of all the strange phraseology in the Mass a few years back, she says that God wants to be part of our lives.
It was for this purpose that Jesus came to be one of us—so that God could live our very lives, and have a human experience alongside of us. And as Paul in his beautiful letter to the Philippians says so well, he “took on the image of oppressed humankind” so that we would always have someone to turn to who understands all that we go through. Or as the psalmist said today, “May your faithful love be upon us, O God, as we place all our hope in you.”
Most of us don’t enjoy punishment, so to say that suffering, as some church people do, is a punishment from God makes me want to say—for what purpose?–to stop the wrong-doing? We should know from watching the effects of capital punishment in this country, that it is not a deterrent to crime. And again, coming from a God whose only purpose, according to the 23rd psalm in the bible translation, The Message, is to chase after us every day of our lives until we are finally home; it would seem strange that this loving God would be about punishing us by inflicting suffering.
Just this past week; we saw an example of this type of theology when the news carried a deplorable story of two people within a religious sect who beat one of their sons to death and nearly killed the second one to force them to confess their sins. Such a mindset for God that depicts an all-powerful, mysterious Being, set apart, waiting for us to fail is not the God of our brother, Jesus.
Yet, suffering, my friends, will probably always be part of our human existence—we will never totally understand why or from where it comes. What we can do is what Jesus did—pray for the grace to withstand it with courage and strive with all our being to bring good from it, knowing that our God, rather than causing it, walks through it, with us.
We have talked a bit here today about “mindset”—how we look at God, how we look at ourselves. Today’s Gospel clearly states that greatness is about service—service to all, even those we may despise. Jesus told us before leaving this physical existence that we would carry on his work—in fact that we would do greater things than he did through the power of the Spirit. The suffering that is a part of human life, that we can’t always change, can be made more bearable through our service and our care for each other. Let us pray today friends for the strength to be good and faithful servants, not accepting of the evils in this world, but somehow, finding a way to accept the perpetrators of the evil, who may sometimes be ourselves.