Sunday, February 25, 2018
Second Sunday in Lent
Prayer of the Day
O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life. Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 God blesses Abraham and Sarah
Romans 4:13-25 The promise to those who share Abraham’s faith
Mark 8:31-38 The passion prediction
Title: Sitting with Suffering
Who can blame Peter, right? His reaction is only normal. Human. He hears his friend and beloved teacher talking about his own future suffering and Peter cuts him off. Tries to comfort Jesus with false hope. Tries to take his pain away with empty promises.
Do you know people like Peter? Those who when you try to share difficult feelings or fears that click into platitudes and song lyrics that ignore the pain of your suffering? “Oh, it will be okay. Everything is going to work out just fine.” They tell us. “It’ not so bad. This happens to everyone at some point.” They excuse. “Just keep your sunny side up and it will pass. The sun’ll come out tomorrow.” They try to comfort. Funerals are probably the most fertile ground for such attempts at false comfort. “She’s in a better place.” In my early days in youth ministry, I encountered a young woman who, a coule of year before, had lost a good friend. And when she couldn’t accept or embrace the pain-dismissing comments that were said to her, she became burdened with guilt because she figured she was doing something wrong, she wasn’t believing enough get past the sorrow and suffering she continued to feel at this loss.
Have you encountered Peter’s? Do you have them in your life? Have to show an extra measure of patience with them and their fear-filled, suffering denials? Probably, at some point, all of us have been Peters to someone who is in pain, someone who is suffering. Perhaps we even do it to ourselves. Seek to comfort ourselves with empty assurances rather than face the full impact of the suffering. Ever growing levels of addictive behaviors are certainly testimonials to the fact that many are seeking to avoid some sort of suffering in their lives.
But, of course we do this to ourselves and others. Of course we have a primal fear of suffering. Most basically – suffering hurts, it is painful, and therefore it is to be avoided. Whether it is our own, or it belongs to someone we love, we don’t want to face suffering of any kind. In the same way that we recoil and pull back when our hand touches a hot pot, so we recoil and pull back from suffering.
As a mentor warned me, and these first years of ordained ministry have confirmed, one of the biggest challenges in ministry – ordained or lay – is being present with suffering and pain. Sitting with it and not trying to talk it away when someone comes to you with a heavy burden of pain. It is hard. To watch and admit your own powerlessness. Judging fro other Peter stories, the guy was a take-control kind of guy. He didn’t admit powerlessness easily. And most likely, neither do we.
The other thing that makes sitting with suffering so difficult is that, if he have an ounce of empathy, the suffering of the other becomes our own. Perhaps because of our own past experiences, or perhaps because of our open hearts and our love for the other, we share their pain. And again, it’s not the place we want to be. It’s not the feelings we want filling our body, mind, or spirit. But what a gift we give to one another when we are able to sit and share the pain of suffering. I have been taught a most valuable lesson that sometimes the best thing we can do when hearing of the pain of the other is to simply say “that sucks.” Letting them know we hear their pain, we acknowledge their suffering, and we are not going to try to excuse or dismiss it.
This may come as a disappointment for some, but one thing I am not going to do this morning is explain why there is suffering. Most likely, our attempts to do that would end up sounding Peter-esque, intellectualizing something that is so deep in our gut. Or worse, it would sound like so much heartless theologizing. What is the point of asking the “Why” question anyway? There is suffering, we hate it, we fear it (for good reason) and we have to face it and live it. So, my practical Swedish side tells me, it is wiser to focus on the facing and living with part.
(For those who suffer with depression and other deep experiences of suffering, please know that I am not suggesting that any of this is an easy and complete approach to dealing with the suffering that you experience. It would be heartless and irresponsible to suggest otherwise. And at the same time I say to all of us, there is no quick fix, full-proof, absolute solution to facing the pain of suffering. It is going to hurt.)
Abraham and Sarah, whose story of long-term suffering we also have heard this morning along with Peter’s first denial. This couple left a successful cosmopolitan life in the city, heard God’s call and headed out into the wilderness to start a new nation. And here we find them, getting on in years, way on in years, nearing one hundred, and they still do not have a child. Their God is failing them. Oh, the suffering wrapped up that.
And we don’t hold them up as some perfect example of obedience and hope. Abraham panics and has a baby with Hagar while he still can father children. Sarah hears the news that she is going to have a baby in her old age and she laughs. But in all their fading hope and advancing years, they do not separate themselves from God. They keep listening. Somehow they keep trusting even in the midst of some pretty faith-less behavior. They remember that God is present even as they continue to suffer with an empty crib. And, of course, in the end, Isaac (whose name means laughter) is born.
In the face of suffering, there is going to be anger. Join the psalmists in shaking your fist at heaven and asking “Why’? You may not get an answer, but it may feel good. And there are going to be tears and weeping, but let them flow. There is nothing childish or sissy-ish in crying. Jesus wept. And there are going to be thoughts of being abandoned and forsaken. But no need to feel guilt for those. Remember Jesus had the same thoughts on the cross as he cried out “Why have you forsaken me?”
Be fully present in your suffering (yours and those you sit with and those you love) knowing full well that God is present, even in the hell that you are walking through. Christ’s victory that is shared with us does not exempt us from suffering, but it does assure us and comfort us that we do not suffer alone. And that is the foundation of our hope and our peace that passes all understanding. The hope and peace that is ours as children of God in the waters of the font. The hope and peace that is fed with Christ’s presence at the table. The hope we hear in God’s word and share through the Spirit in community with one another. It’s not about hoping that things will get better, but rather the hope that is ours in God even when things don’t.
The Rev. Mark Erson,