Trinity 11 - suffering with Christ

A sermon preached at St George's by Margaret Houston, 31 August 2014

The writer Anne Lamott has said there are only three prayers.  They are:

Thank you.

Today’s readings are definitely of the “help” variety.  They are cries of pain, of anger, of betrayal.  “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable?” asks Jeremiah, before turning to God and saying, “truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.”

The Psalmist, also asks God why he, who “hates the company of evildoers,” is suffering.

And in the Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that he must suffer and be killed. Peter jumps in. “Oh no, Lord, don’t worry,” he says, “it’ll be fine. It will work out! That bad thing won’t happen to you!” And Jesus turns on him.  “Get behind me, Satan,” he says. You can almost imagine Peter saying, “Geez, I was only trying to help!!”

I remember reading that Jesus is breaking one of the commandments of our modern life – “thou shalt always be supportive.”  Peter is being supportive. He’s reassuring Jesus that it will all be okay.  We do it too – “I’m sure that lump isn’t anything to worry about,” “I’m sure the marriage counsellor will be able to help,” “I’m sure you’ll find another job.” Don’t worry. It will probably all be okay.

It’s a good instinct.  We want to reassure. But Jesus says, “get thee behind me, Satan.” Strong words.  Jesus usually reserves that sort of language for the hypocritical religious leaders, not for his own apostles. So Peter must have got something seriously wrong here.

The suffering is going to happen.  Jesus really is going to die. For Jeremiah and the Psalmist, their suffering is real.  Torday, for the Yadizi families starving on a mountaintop, the Syrian children in refugee camps, the Christians facing persecution in Iraq, the unarmed Black teenager shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri and the thousands peacefully protesting in the face of tear gas, for the families in Gaza burying their children – the suffering is real.  For Robin Williams, whose suicide shocked us, and for the millions of people, like him, fighting mental illness and addiction, and for everyone here, at one time or another, the suffering is real.

I was at St. Paul’s Cathedral on Thursday to hear the wonderful Sara Miles and Nadia Bolz-Weber, and one of the points that came up was the tradition of confessional writing – that one way of encountering God was through sharing our own stories. So I’m going to tell a part of mine now.
When I was younger, I was all about resurrection – the idea that out of suffering comes a blessing greater than we imagined.  And so when things were hard, I would come to church and in my mind, throw a tantrum.  “Why don’t you just fix this?” I’d scream, internally, “so I can happily proclaim the overflowing new life of the resurrection again?”

Intellectually, I knew that the purpose of the creator of heaven and earth was not to make everything perfect for one middle-class White woman in the developed world, but I think emotionally I still expected it. Almost as a reward for my great understanding, I expected resurrection after resurrection, with a touch of Good Friday for drama and verity, but nothing really too bad.

And, eventually, the bad thing would end, and I would forgive God for putting me through it. My faith would revive, and I would feel a newfound conviction of resurrection truth.  But I never really tried patching it up with him while I was still suffering.  I was too angry.  (And there’s nothing wrong with anger – God can take anger. God shares anger when it’s directed at the bad things of the world. But it’s not the end of the conversation.)

And then the last three years happened. In the summer of 2011, my husband and I – already bruised from abusive work situations (not St. George’s), hoping to start rebuilding our lives – started trying for a baby.  Nothing happened.  Eventually we went to the doctor. A year of investigations and referrals followed, then a six-month waiting list for IVF. Months of mood-altering injections, fear, hope, and  ultimately, failure. Another waiting list, another IVF, another failure. New developments indicate things may be getting worse, so it’s looking increasingly unlikely that we can have a child genetically related to both of us. My husband has also developed stress-related epilepsy – two of his seizures recently occurred in dangerous situations that could have proved fatal if things had happened slightly differently.

We’re exhausted. We’re grieving. We’re angry and burned out. And I’ve had to figure out how to get past the anger, and find God here, in the suffering, not just in the resurrection at the end of it.  Three years of a pain that cannot be fixed, that you can’t wish away or cheerily say, “oh, but without kids, you can sleep late and go on holiday!”  Loving someone with a disease that could turn bad at any time.  There’s no easy way of just making all that okay.

“God forbid it!” said Peter, “this must never happen to you!” Oh, but it does, Peter. Oh, but it does.  And that’s where Jesus comes in.  “Take up your cross,” he says, “and follow me.”  Suffering, Jesus says, is inevitable, even for God, who chose to come down and share it with us. The bad things will sometimes happen, and the sooner we admit it the sooner we can stop lying to ourselves and to each other.

Blessed are those who mourn, Jesus says. Blessed are the poor.  I will suffer and die. Take up your cross and follow me.  If you read the Bible when everything is good and easy and happy, you may actually find it rather scary.  Jesus has a lot of warnings for people whose lives are easy – he seems to think they’re in some kind of danger.

That’s what Peter doesn’t get.  That mountaintop, resurrection feeling wasn’t false – I was just wrong in thinking it was the only way of being close to God. God is not just a God of victory over death, he is the God of the death and suffering  before the victory.  That’s why we sing, on All Saints Day, “and when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.” That’s why we sing, on Maundy Thursday, the words from Psalm 22, “be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help.”

When I’m happy, I can get complacent and know-it-all. I can give false reassurances or lectures about what people should do.  I can start to think that I must have done something extra clever or virtuous to have all this happiness. I can think that I need the happy ending to see God’s goodness, that when happiness is ripped away, God’s ripped away with it.  I can start to look to my own happiness and sense of security as the sign of God’s love and victory.  That’s a lot of stuff getting in the way, between me and God.  It sounds like a lot of potential pitfalls for turning into a not very nice, or compassionate, kind of person.  I have to work hard, when things are good, not to become insufferably smug and know-it-all.

But when you’re suffering, in the breaks between the rage and the anger – which are okay, God can take them – you learn how to suffer.  You have more compassion. You’re down in the trenches, and that’s where the other suffering, broken people are – the addicts and the screw-ups and the mourners and all of God’s other favourite people.  Here we can all sit together and cry and scream and laugh and cry some more.  When you’re happy, you have to push past so much stuff to get to Christ on the cross.  When you’re suffering, all you have to do is be suffering, and Christ is there.  In raw, undiluted, love. And you don’t have to do a thing.

Anne Lamott, again, wrote, “in all barbarity and suffering, in Robin Williams’ death, on Mount Sinjar, in the Ebola towns, the streets of India's ghettos, and our own, we see Christ crucified. I don't mean that in a nice, Christian-y way. I mean that in the most ultimate human and existential way. The temptation is to say, as cute little believers sometimes do, Oh it will all make sense someday. The thing is, it may not. We still sit with scared, dying people; we get the thirsty drinks of water.”

In the words of the Passiontide hymn:

My days are few, O fail not, with thine immortal power
To hold me that I quail not, in death’s most fearful hour
That I may fight befriended, and see in my last strife
To me thine arms extended, upon the cross of life.
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