Proper 24B, On Suffering
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Propers for the Sunday closest to October 19th
- Job 38:1-7
- Hebrews 5:1-10
- Mark 10:35-45
The Same Coin
Recently we’ve been watching the PBS series “Call the Midwife” at our house. A mini series based on the autobiographical account entitled “The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times”, by Jennifer Worth of her time spent serving as a nurse and midwife in the slums of East London. The most recent episode detailed Jenny’s growing friendship with a disabled veteran of World War 1. Initially revolted by his chaotic and filthy living conditions, she swiftly discovers that her patient’s life has been a rich one--chronicled by love and profound loss. Disabled by war, he has outlived his wife and children, all of whom were victims of war. Yet ,in the midst of his horrific losses, he demonstrates to Jenny the great gift that is love, he has lived fully and cherishes the fact that he HAS loved over the knowledge that he has also lost. They develop a friendship...and Jenny clearly loves and cares for this, her patient and her friend.
However, the greatest gift that he shares with her is the powerful realization that love is worth it. That opening herself up to the risk of loss and heartache is worth the great and holy gift that is love...that if she is to truly live she must also learn the gift that suffering can bring--that suffering, being the result of living, engaging and loving other human beings, is worth it.
Both/and, this joy and sorrow...this is a reality that has led many of us to explore the seeming paradox of a good and loving God existing in sharp contrast to what so often seems to be a cruel and hurting world. In my first call as a pediatric chaplain I spent a disproportionate amount of time accompanying families who were wrestling in real and painful ways with this paradox.
I remember one family in particular, when their oldest child was diagnosed with leukemia her parents asked me if God was somehow punishing them. They had always attributed their families good fortune, good health, and general well being to the blessing of God--so when they found themselves facing the reality of a cancer diagnosis and the possibility of losing their child, they wondered if somehow God’s blessing had been taken from them, if God was afflicting them for some unknown and unimaginable reason. I listened, reflected and questioned alongside them...Where is God in suffering? Is God orchestrating it all--inflicting suffering upon us as some kind of opportunity for redemptive learning? Does evil exist in the world at God’s behest? Is it all some kind of test?
While these were new questions for this family, they are not new questions in our tradition. We see this clearly as we hear and read the book of Job.
In some ways the book of Job offers us a starting point for exploring the tension between our expression of an all powerful, all knowing, and all loving God and the reality of suffering--the authors of Job wanted to know, why does God allow the faithful to suffer? Shouldn’t we be rewarded for our faith? Shouldn’t that reward somehow be the elimination of suffering and the security of our families and our places in the world and that beyond?
This thread of reasoning runs through scripture--and in some ways this is the temptation of the faithful, as we so often find ourselves speaking in the words of the brothers Zebedee--”Jesus I believe, reward my belief”.
For these disciples it probably felt obvious--a strong faith should correspond with equally strong rewards. And, this is a distinctly human temptation--there is an entire stream of Christianity that adheres to the notion of what is called the prosperity Gospel. The central theme of this teaching is that Christians are entitled to physical and economic well being in proportion to the strength of the individual Christian’s faith. The harder you pray, the longer you live, the nicer your house, and the stronger your stocks. It is all too easy to see the result of this theology in our own lives and culture...and when I met with that family at the hospital it was clear that they viewed the tragedy that had befallen them as a curse that needed to be broken--they viewed illness as a punishment, and in this I did not equivocate--God does not punish adults by giving their children cancer!
When we view prosperity as a reward for our faith it is far too easy to see our tragedies as some sort of punishment and I see our Gospel today as the antithesis of this thinking, “you do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Now, this is not a call to seek out suffering but rather it is a call to share in Jesus’ own calling--the calling to be a human being. Because, if we are human we WILL suffer. And, in that suffering we can find love, empathy, compassion--and the embrace of a God who understands.
For, this is what continuously amazes me about our faith--that we follow a God who has fully experienced the pain of loss and of death. That God, through the full humanity of Jesus, has walked the journey of loving and losing, of friendship and betrayal, of hope and despair. This in so many ways is what draws me into Christianity--the powerful sense that God understands and is present with us in the midst of all of the horrible things that can and do befall us as Christians.
So, when I found myself sitting in the recovery room with the family whose story I shared a moment ago, this reality is what I shared with them. Rather than looking at God as the cause of their pain and blaming themselves for what had befallen them...they began to look for God in the midst of their pain. This was a very significant theological shift for this family--and this shift allowed them to reframe the questions.
Where did I see God today? Is it in the nurses or doctors whose loving care is easing this journey? Is it in the moments of laughter in the midst of the pain? Is it in holding our children and comforting them? Is it in sharing our story with others who are also on this journey?
In looking for God in the midst of it all, we are reminded that God IS in the midst of it all--the good and the bad, the celebration and the mourning. We are called to live fully in the world--not in anticipation of some great reward, but in awareness of our shared humanity and the power of love. This for me is the power of the words we read in Job today...in this declaration of God’s power and wisdom I hear the declaration that we are surrounded by God. As we live, with all the complexities of our lives, we are undergirded and surrounded by God’s presence. And, it is thus, that when we suffer--and we will--the love of God which passes all understanding will open our hearts. It is my prayer that, through that opening in our hearts, the love and light of Christ will shine.
For, who here hasn’t wept at the pain of loss? Who here hasn’t celebrated a birth or mourned a death? Who here hasn’t paused in their perusal of the newspaper in awe at the horrific things that we as human beings are capable of doing to each other and in wonder at the kindnesses we can show? We love as Christ loved and suffer as Christ suffers because we are human. And, because we are human we are the children of God and because we are the children of God we are wrapped in God’s embrace throughout our lives, our losses and our loves.