Suffering and Hope
April 7, 2019
John 12: 1-8
Philippians 3: 4b - 14
I would not attempt this teaching if we were not in reach of Easter and its promise of resurrection; I ‘m planning to talk about suffering, not a subject most of us want to dwell on.
Each of us is unavoidably confronted with both personal suffering and a world of suffering. How can we deal with it? We are sorely tempted to turn away – it’s too much. We act cheerful even if it means putting on a false front. Some of us use painkillers like alcohol or the opioids that end up killing 47,000 Americans each year. Some people latch on to cults or religions that soothe– as you know religion has been called “the opiate of the people.” And the real purpose of much of the bloated consumerism of our times is to deaden feelings of pain and suffering. It’s only natural to avoid as much pain and suffering as we can - to eat, drink, and be merry, and buy stuff.
As followers of Jesus we are called during Lent to contemplate the mystery of Christ’s voluntary suffering. The suffering which saves us. “God so loved the world that he gave his son to die on a cross.” Why? “To save the people of the world from death.” Jesus calls on us to love one another - to love our neighbors - as God loves us. That call may entail suffering with and for our neighbor. No wonder we draw boundaries to limit those whom we must call “neighbor.”
The question as to why innocent suffering is part of life is daunting. If God is love, if he is good and all-powerful why does he permit the innocent to suffer. Why would a good God sacrifice his beloved son? Why does the innocent ram caught in the thicket have to die in order to spare Abraham’s son Isaac? What can it mean that the perfect son of God died for you and me, and instead of you and me? To many, even most of us, there can be no entirely satisfying answer. I’ve struggled, maybe you have too, and we share that struggle with sages and ordinary folks down through the ages. The question of innocent suffering has confronted humans since the beginning of our consciousness and our awareness of pain and death.
When I was 14 years old, in 1944, I first learned about the holocaust. In that crushing moment I lost my faith in the father-like just and loving God of my childhood. God couldn’t keep me safe. Maybe God didn’t care. I had nightmares about Nazis hunting me down. I felt guilty – survivor guilt – why me instead of those other children marched to the gas chambers. It was for me the beginning of a long and secret struggle. Who could I share my questions with? Not my parents who, although they grieved for the slaughtered, seemed untouched in their unquestioning allegiance to God and his Messiah.
For a few minutes I want us to consider how different traditions have addressed the question of pain and suffering. I’m presenting you with an incomplete, shorthand, and arguably inadequate list. Each item could occupy a week or a year of sermons. You can combine various explanations and not be wrong.
1) First, the bleakest view: There is no God. Suffering is merely a by-product of the natural struggle for survival. The fittest win, the rest lose. Eat or be eaten. That’s just the way it is. Nature red in tooth and claw. God is not in this picture or he is absent or indifferent.
The psalmist cries out against this ancient view saying, “The fool has said in his heart ‘There is no God.’” But more and more people these days are emboldened to say, “God is dead.”
A second explanation that has merit to many of us:
2) Much pain and suffering is due to evil human systems formed out of fear, greed, tribalism, the lust for power and the cruel impulse to do violence to the weak. Hitler, Stalin and Mao, yes. The ancient and persistent evil of antisemitism and scapegoating. Colonialism and corporate greed that ride roughshod over the weak to get and maintain power and wealth. The abuse of the earth by greedy mindless over-consumption that harms all living creatures and the natural world.
3) Another explanation: Pain and suffering are punishments for wrong-doing. “The wages of sin is death.” “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Suffering is punishment. “In Adam’s Fall, we sinned all.”
4) Another view that deserves our attention: Pain and suffering can be our teachers. We are punished for our errors and to avoid punishment we will learn to do better. The absence of pain means we are doing something right. Pain teaches us what to avoid and how to be safe. Suffering is instructive. It can teach us the way of righteousness.
5) Yet another explanation: Pain and suffering are tests of faith.
6) And another: Suffering is an illusion. Perhaps Christian Science is an example here, and some interpretations of Buddhism.
7) Suffering, our own and others,’ can teach us empathy and compassion.
8) And finally, the acknowledgement that is at the heart of our Christian faith: Suffering, pain, and death are part of what it means to be human. Our deliverance comes because God is willing to suffer with us; this willingness is the heart of the covenant relationship. Jesus, God’s son and beloved, came to bear our suffering with us, because God loves us. God’s love for God’s creation is shown through the Incarnation. This mystery is fundamental to our Christian faith. Immanuel. God with us. Jesus makes it possible to bear our own suffering, and to accompany those who are suffering. He teaches us how to relieve suffering through our actions: giving food to the hungry, release to prisoners, joy to the afflicted. Mercy and loving-kindness are acts of co-creation with God.
Pain and suffering have been part of our Bible history from the beginning. Adam and Eve are free to disobey God and they do. They break God’s one and only commandment, “Don’t eat fruit from this one tree.” They eat the fruit, they lie to God and they blame each other. Then they are punished by backbreaking work, pain in childbirth, and death; and so are we.
Adam and Eve are parents. They see their first son, Cain, murder his brother Abel. Parents have suffered with and from their disappointing children ever since. In Chapter 1 of Genesis, Father God calls his creation “good” but by Chapter 6, God is so heartsick at man’s wickedness, he wants to wipe them out and start over. Noah, who God spares from being drowned in the Flood, is a drunk, and his bad behavior results in a curse on his own son. By the time of the Tower of Babel and Sodom and Gomorrah, people are behaving so badly that God scatters them or destroys them.
But our story does not come to a dead end. We are given a promise and covenant Hope.
God calls Abraham and makes a promise: “Go forth from your father’s house and I will make of you a great nation. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”
It’s a difficult story: People don’t get along. Sarah and Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac. Jacob and Esau. Rachel and Leah. Joseph and his brothers. These are close family members, but at moments they are itching to kill each other. Jealousy, rivalry, cruelty and lovelessness are bound up in the history of the human family. We also see love, tenderness and sacrifice entwined in our story. And covenant hope. Jacob struggles with the angel; then makes peace with his brother Esau whom he has cheated. And then God gives Jacob a new name and a new beginning as Israel.
Our story goes on. The baby Moses lives because his older sister and an Egyptian princess save him, but all his little same-aged boy cousins, are murdered. When Moses grows up, he kills a bad guy, but then he saves his people from slavery and brings them the Law. The wicked and the innocent suffer together all through the biblical narrative, even to the birth story of the baby Jesus. King Herod, afraid for his power, kills Jewish baby boys hoping to catch little Jesus in his net. Not just then. But in a few years the Holy Innocent, the sinless Jesus is killed.
And so it goes: Stalin, Mao, Hitler. Nanking, Hiroshima. Evil gets built into human institutions almost as a by-product – for example, in jails and detention centers, in orphanages, school systems, banking and home buying red-lining, in many practices of corporations, in trade practices, in voting against a living wage, in locating dumps and sewers where poor people live. We tend to use a shorthand when we personify these crimes against millions, but millions of us are complicit in one way or another even if we don’t mean to be. We see climate catastrophe approaching. For the time being some of us can stand at a safe distance, but the suffering refugees pounding at our walls are beginning to bring the chaos right up to our gated communities and gentrified neighborhoods. Fences are not going to work much longer in our world of rising temperatures, fire, and floods. Walls won’t shut out these disasters.
In a way, questions surrounding evil and suffering may be harder for us American moderns. We have so much information. We are so easily deceived by fake news and our own desires and our ignorance even as we are exposed to the whole world 24/7. The question, “Who is my neighbor?,” if faced honestly in the age of DNA analysis would force us to admit that every person is our neighbor; they are our relatives. People these days can’t handle the truth of either science or religion, and they use old and illegitimate ways to shut our neighbor out, wear blinkers and erect boundaries: physical walls, tribalism, racism, me-first-isms.
At some level, the answer to much of the world’s suffering is obvious: to love our neighbor and to do what we can to relieve our neighbor’s suffering. Share the riches of the world. When we do this, we find to our joy that our actions to relieve our neighbor’s suffering help heal our own personal suffering.
We have learned a little about suffering and its causes and remedies during the course of human history. After all we do believe that God calls us to the 8th Day of creation. We are learning to cure cancer and mitigate its pain; we build dikes and dams and prevent flooding; we learn how to grow high-yield crops; we vaccinate, refrigerate, sterilize, and air-condition. We educate girls and harness wind and solar power. We recognize how unevenly shared are the benefits of science, technology, and power and we fight for remedies to inequality that will reduce suffering. All these advances have real and palpable benefit. World-wide, life expectancy has gone way up; child mortality has gone way down; illiteracy is in retreat; the numbers of enslaved have decreased. The Church has played significant part in all of this good.
The seeds of my own reconciliation to suffering came after the rekindling of my childhood anger and doubt in the year I spent in Mexico in the 1970s. I worked as a pediatrician at a children’s hospital helping to rehabilitate a group of infants suffering from extreme malnutrition. If ever there was innocent suffering, here it was. You have seen those photos: the silent staring emaciated infants – they look about the same whether from Yemen or South Sudan or Mexico. The hospital I worked in did what we could to help these babies but over a third of them died within a week or two after they were admitted. Those that survived had to stay in the hospital for many months, and I grew to know and care about little José and Maria and Jesus and Alex. Most of these little survivors were permanently blighted physically and mentally by their malnutrition and their long lonely hospitalizations. When they finally went home from the hospital, it was to the extreme poverty that had caused their malnutrition in the first place. Many of the babies lived in the huge garbage-dump enclaves that surrounded Mexico City.
In Mexico, and after I returned to Washington and the Church of the Saviour in 1972, I felt angry, distressed, and helpless. I found help and eventually direction here at Church of the Saviour. “Let it sink in, experience it. Ask for a way.” This was the counsel I received. I had a place here at the Church of the Saviour to voice my distress although it sounded naive. What could I do?
I learned to be willing to do the little I could do and to let God do the rest in God’s good time. The Family Place emerged from that struggle. The Family Place, as most of you know, is a mission of 8th Day. It is a community center about a mile up 16th Street where parents have been coming with their small children for the past forty years. Most parents are Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico and Central America. They struggle with the issues all new parents face, but with the added burdens of poverty and unfamiliarity with American culture and language. At Family Place they can find friendship, educational resources, social services, food, clothes, strollers, diapers, and a safe place for their children to play and learn.
I also learned that when proper resources were directed against the terrible scourge of infant deaths that you could make things better. When I was an advocate! In the 1970’s when I was in Mexico, fifty out of every 1000 babies born died before their first birthday. In 2018, that number was reduced to twelve out of a thousand, still too high, but heading in the right direction.
Jan Richardson, a poet I first heard of in a teaching by Patty Wudel a few weeks ago, captured well what we do at Family Place and our other missions. I’ll paraphrase what Jan writes: “Most of the repairs we are called to make in life are small, incremental, and cumulative. When big transformations occur – in a heart, in a relationship, in a community – they typically result from these small repairs. Restoration depends on our willingness to engage the slow work of mending over time. It asks us to turn to what is broken, to imagine what it could become, to discern our role in its healing, and to enter into the rhythms that will support that healing. The point is not to erase every sign of damage. We will not. The point is to show that the damage does not have the final word. What finally emerges from the mending will be both scarred and beautiful. It will be more alive, more whole.” Resurrection is at the heart of our covenant hope.
Desmond Tutu reminds us of God’s vision of hope. We are all members of one family, God’s family. We are called as co-creators to live out the full implications of that truth. We assert that wrong and injustice will not have the last word, for we are made ultimately for goodness, for love, for compassion. We Christians claim that God took on our human nature and suffered to redeem the entire creation. This God is Immanuel, God with us, there in our anguish, our desolation, our distress.
We are offered the hope and the power of the Resurrection. The hope of heaven has been a comfort to me as I have worked with many people, many children, whose potential has been foreclosed in this life by deprivation, abuse and disease. It comforts me to imagine their tears wiped away in a heaven that is a part of my own story too. The psalmist says, “What is planted with tears will be harvested with joy.” Certainly, our planting job is right here on earth, but our hope can be in a heaven where all is made right and beautiful for those children.
We are promised in our Holy Book that we will be delivered from this body of death. We need not be afraid of claiming this hope. “In Christ Jesus the life-giving law of the Spirit has set us free from the law of sin and death.” In our lectionary scripture for today Paul writes: “My one desire is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and to share his suffering…in hope of somehow attaining resurrection from the dead.” So we too can press on, as Paul says, hoping to take hold of the promised prize .