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Called to Suffer?

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.


Jesus Helped the Wrong People and So Should We

This post is adapted from a sermon I gave at Nauraushaun Presbyterian Church on September 6, 2015. The lectionary text which accompanies this message is Mark 7:24-37, in which Jesus travels to Tyre and Sidon, heals the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman, and heals a deaf man.

In a typical healing story in the gospels, Jesus touches the life of a fellow Jew, restoring them to fellowship, covenant, and commerce. Practically, he is putting them back into society and workforce. Symbolically, he is rescuing Israel, one person and a time, as a sign of the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

All of that might help us understand the odd tension in the accounts of Mark 7:24-37. Jesus is not in Israel, he is in Tyre and Sidon, Gentile cities far to the north. So how does that work? What happens when Jesus the Jewish prophet and healer crosses into non-Jewish territory? Perhaps to our surprise, he seems utterly disinterested in giving his blessing to the Gentiles he meets. This is not what we expect from the Savior and Lord; indeed, he even appears to reference the bigotry between Jews and Gentiles in that time and place, calling the locals “dogs.” What is going on?

There is an answer, for what it’s worth. In light of what we already observed about Jesus’ healings, it seems that he considered his life and ministry to be a project for Israel alone, first and foremost. After all, only at his ascension does he tell his Jewish followers to spread the gospel of the kingdom to the whole world. It might seem odd to us on this side of history, but this was clearly a part of Jesus’ self-understanding. We need not conclude that Jesus didn’t care for these Gentiles (in fact he does heal and bless them), but he was clearly biding his time until his mission to his own people was complete.

Whether or not this is a satisfying explanation of Jesus’ behavior in these stories, what I’m far more interested in is the reaction of the Gentiles. The first story gets truly outrageous when the Syrophoenician woman refuses to take Jesus’ “no” for an answer. She argues with him! And the in the second story, the healed man and his neighbors are so excited and rambunctious they cannot honor Jesus’ request to keep it secret. These are stories about people disobeying Jesus and stepping on his toes! The tenacity and impropriety of these Gentiles in the presence of the son of man is remarkable.

The insistence of these two that the healing and power of the kingdom not be constrained by boundaries of geography or religion is, frankly, inspiring. In their respective moments, these two don’t give a rip about Judaism or paganism or borders or timelines or being polite or sticking to their own kind. The woman only wants her daughter to live, and the man is just ecstatic to be able to hear. 

This is the kind of culture-transcending power which ought to characterize the gospel, not exclusion, moralizing, or tribalism. For his part, Jesus is so moved by them that he drops his own immediate agenda and offers them a full blessing. In the face of need and want and hurt, may we be the kind of people who forsake decorum and transgress the tribal borders that might otherwise keep us from experiencing or unleashing the kingdom of God on our human brothers and sisters, wherever they or we might be found.

And that’s where I was going to wrap this up, content to have taken a difficult and odd text to a constructive and even an instructive place.

But then I saw the photos.

I was captivated and devastated by the same photos that no doubt captivated and devastated you when you saw them on the news or online last week. These were images of a tiny, drowned refugee child who washed up on the shores of Turkey. Images that have become the horrific face of a growing global refugee crisis.

I couldn’t get the images out of my head, especially as I was putting this post together. In the midst of it all, it struck me that this child was from Syria, a nation that shares at least a name with the ancient home of the Syro-phoenician woman in Mark 7. How different, I wondered, was the desperation of this woman to see her daughter healed than that of Aylan Kurdi’s mother to see him living safe and free? Someone said powerfully on social media last week that parents would not set their child afloat in the sea unless those waters offered more safety and opportunity than the land behind them. Like the Syrophoenician woman, Aylan’s mother took the risk – a much bigger risk, in fact – but without the same happy resolution. In fact, it cost her her own life and those of her children.

How do we respond to issues like refugeeism and immigration in a way that honors the humanity and tenacity and frailty of those caught up in unspeakable calamity? In these short, problematic Bible stories we catch a glimpse of that same spirit of need, resolve, and blessed impropriety and risk.  

The power of the kingdom is not restricted by geography, or cultural boundaries, or even religion. BUT, it also requires that we who call ourselves kingdom people must be people who are likewise unrestricted by those man-made boundaries. Perhaps for us, in America, the biggest obstacle to an open-hearted response to the desperate needs of other humans is not religion, creed, or ideology, but comfort, security, and lazy self-interest.

Are we prepared, equipped, determined to smuggle kingdom love across these borders, to invoke God’s mercies in inappropriate places, to welcome inconvenience and even burden in order to bless and rescue the lives of our hurting neighbors, here and everywhere? Are we ready to proclaim this gospel, and in doing so share risk and even suffering with God’s less fortunate children?

May we find solidarity with those who break the rules in pursuit of justice, and may we follow Jesus who listened and loved, and opened the Divine Heart to those in need in all places.