This is adapted from a sermon I presented at Nauraushaun Presbyterian Church on October 18, 2015.
Two of the lectionary readings today relate to the topic of suffering. Isaiah 53 is a poetic rumination on suffering and deliverance in the Jewish exile. And in Mark 10:35-45, when Jesus’ followers want to be his henchmen in the new world order, he rebukes them and declares that suffering is his true vocation and that of anyone who follows him.
There are at least two unhelpful, would-be-Christian ways of explaining suffering. One is to imagine that suffering was something that happened once to Jesus so it need not ever happen to his “true believers.” This is built on the ancient notion that suffering is a punishment from God to be avoided by the righteous. Another approach, more honest about reality but still ultimately harmful, acknowledges that suffering is unavoidable, but sees it as a sort of “down payment” on reward in the afterlife, as a commodity or currency which garners favor with God. These are both based on the fundamental notion of God as the author of suffering.
Both of our readings today challenge aspects of these unhelpful ideas. Isaiah’s “suffering servant” (perhaps a once or future king or a representation of Israel itself; embodied and fulfilled by Jesus according to Christian tradition) does not suffer instead of Israel, he suffers with them, and by sharing their suffering delivers them. And Jesus does not tell his followers to sit back and watch him put an end to suffering, he warns them that they will inevitably suffer, as he must, if they persist in following him.
In the ethos of his message and in his death, Jesus refutes and corrects slanderous notions about God and suffering. Time and time again, Jesus rejects the idea that sickness and calamity represent God’s punishment of sinners. A man is not born blind because he or his parents sinned, but so that he and his neighbors can see God when he is healed (John 9). Insurgents killed by Rome are not being judged by God, they are victims of their own choice to follow the path of violence (Luke 13). And on the cross, Jesus nonviolently enters into the very belly of the imperial beast, the heart of human suffering, and dies with us and for us.
In the religious tradition into which Jesus spoke (and in many corners of the religion which worships him), God’s position and role in relation to suffering is as persecutor or punisher. In the divine vision of Jesus, however, God is found inside human suffering, in the midst of those who hurt and want. The Bible may not give a satisfactory answer regarding the source or purpose of suffering, but in Jesus God is found in willing solidarity with those who suffer, as friend and deliverer, not as avenger or nemesis.
Jesus says that those who follow him will suffer, but this is not (as too many have imagined) because suffering is somehow good or noble or effective in and of itself. We are not called to suffer for suffering’s sake. But when we follow the Way of peacemaking and empathy and advocacy and charity, we are on a collision course with suffering – our neighbor’s and our own. Only when suffering is separated from this ethos and context does it become some kind of ritual or currency.
It is only when we choose to be like Jesus and to suffer with those who suffer that there is hope for salvation for them and for us. But if I’m honest, this is the war that rages inside myself. Between the path of comfort and security and the avoidance of suffering or the path of co-suffering love and solidarity, I’m ashamed at how often I choose the former.
Suffering is not a punishment from God or a currency by which He can be sated or manipulated. It is a tragic but ubiquitous reality, an experience which, when shared, allows us to transcend the status quo and encounter the divine in transforming and powerful ways we could otherwise not. In our best moments, our church embodies this perilous vocation. This is why we feed and clothe and shelter our neighbors, why we advocate for those without a voice, and why we choose to suffer with those who want and hurt. Because that is what our Lord did for us. That is what God is like.
Father, we do not understand why there is suffering, and sometimes the burden is so great that we lose hope. Forgive us for looking for religious solutions to suffering, for trying to explain suffering away or to place blame instead of following the example of Jesus, who suffered with the suffering and died for the dying. Forgive us for seeking to avoid suffering instead of helping our hurting neighbors by sharing the load. May we understand our vocation to hurt with others for their salvation and our own, until your kingdom comes. In Jesus’ name. Amen.