Trinity Sunday, Year C, 2016

In the mid-2000s, one of the most popular characters on Saturday Night Live was Debbie Downer. Rachel Dratch played a dour woman who could turn any occasion into a chance to talk about something devastating. About to order a steak at a family reunion? Debbie will tell you all about Mad Cow Disease. Excited because Tigger hugged you at Disney? Debbie will remind you about how a tiger attacked Roy of Siegfied and Roy. After every one of these tidbits, the camera zoomed into Debbie’s face and a sad trombone noise played. “Wah, waaaah”.

Let me tell you, Debbie is on to something!

There is a lot of suffering in the world. We live in this in-between time. Jesus has come and lived among us and done the work of our salvation, but we are still waiting for the Kingdom of God to come to full fruition. We are still waiting, longing for a world without sin, a world without suffering.

The biggest questions we get as clergy are around questions of suffering. And so, before we get to Paul’s perspective in Romans 5, I want to talk a bit about suffering in general.

Today we’ll be talking about three broad categories of suffering, although I’m sure if we put our heads together we could come up with more! For today’s purposes we’ll talk about: Suffering because we are part of an imperfect creation, suffering because of human sin, and suffering because of institutional evil.

First, we suffer because we are part of a creation that is not perfect. Our bodies have millions of cells that all have to work perfectly together for us to be healthy. And even if we are healthy our entire life, eventually the mechanical parts of our body just wear out. We are finite. The website Humans of New York has been doing a series about childhood cancer at Sloane Kettering. One of the doctors interviewed said:

Twelve thousand kids per year get cancer in the United States. But the extraordinary thing isn’t that cancer happens. The extraordinary thing is that cancer doesn’t happen more often. Every human life begins with a single cell. Trillions of cells will form from that single cell. During this process, the DNA will rearrange itself hundreds of times to form all different types of cells: muscle, nerve, bone, blood, connective tissue. If you look at these cells under a microscope, each one has special properties. They all have codes that tell them exactly what to do and exactly when to stop doing it. The complexity of this is extraordinary. There are numerous fail-safes at every level to prevent mistakes. How is it possible that it ever works correctly? There are trillions of chances for something to go wrong. God, it’s unbelievable. The longer I study cancer, the more I’m in awe of the healthy child.

Each of us will end up suffering because we are physically or mentally ill, or because someone we love dies, just as a consequence of being a created human being in a creation that is imperfect. We don’t think a tree has disappointed God if it gets Dutch Elm Disease. In the same way, getting cancer or being depressed does not mean you have failed God somehow, it is just part of being a human being.

Second, we can suffer because of human sin. This one is pretty obvious. We suffer when our partner commits adultery. We suffer if we are hit by a drunk driver. We suffer when someone is unkind to us. But our own sin can make us suffer, too. St. Paul was deeply familiar with this phenomenon. In Romans 7 he writes,

For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

We want to go to the gym, but sloth overtakes us. We want to eat well, but greed or anxiety entices us to eat too much. We mean to be kind, but we lash out defensively. We intend to be faithful, but the lure of the old high school flame is powerful. That kind of inner disconnect can cause enormous suffering. We find ourselves making choices that harm us and the people around us, but we cannot seem to stop. I’m telling you, Debbie Downer. Wah Waaaaah.

Finally, institutional evil, or oppression. Whether intentional or unintentional, societies can inflict suffering on communities, often the poor. Think of the effects of uranium mining on the townships of Johannesburg. Think of the legacy of housing discrimination in this country. Think of those factory workers in the third world who work in abominable conditions to make clothes for westerners.

In the June issue of The Atlantic, Paul Tough writes about what happens to children who are raised in systemic poverty. He writes,

Over the past decade, neuroscientists have demonstrated with increasing clarity how severe and chronic stress in childhood—what doctors sometimes call toxic stress—leads to physiological and neurological adaptations in children that affect the way their minds and bodies develop and, significantly, the way they function in school.

These children suffer from the consequences of broken creation, and because of human sin, but also by this larger more complicated system that exists around them and makes it difficult for anyone in their community to affect change.

So, this is all fairly depressing. Why, then does the Apostle Paul tell us to rejoice in our suffering? Does he want people just to stay where they are and suck it up? Does he see suffering as God’s discipline for us? Is God an uptight nun, ready with the ruler to smack us when we get too out of hand?

No, Paul says we can rejoice in our suffering because of what God has already done for us and what God is doing for us.

Through Jesus Christ, God has blessed the human experience, including suffering. Rather than human suffering being something separate from God, Jesus makes human suffering into something that God experiences. Jesus experienced betrayal and pain and death. His father experienced the suffering of watching his Son die. Rather than protecting himself from suffering, God chooses to fully enter into our life experience and join us. When we suffer, God is alongside us.

God even forgives us for the suffering that we cause. While we may never be able to make good choices, never be able to live a perfectly healthy and holy life, God chooses to eliminate any distance between Godself and us. Through Jesus’ resurrection, God forgives us our sins and sends the Holy Spirit to pour love into our hearts.

It is this love of the Holy Spirit that transforms our suffering. In God’s economy, nothing is wasted.

Paul is addressing a community likely experiencing persecution for being Christian, so he is speaking to a particular kind of suffering. In chapters 5-8 of Romans, Paul is explaining the cosmic power of God who has changed the course of history and of the human position in the universe. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has once and for all defeated the powers of death and in. In Chapter 8 we get the wonderful speech about how absolutely nothing can separate human beings from the love of God.

Paul is not lecturing the community in Rome about having a stiff upper lip. He is inviting them to live into their new identity as people who have absolutely nothing that separates them from God. Not even their worst sufferings can separate them from God. Now, with the power of the Holy Spirit, those sufferings can actually be transformed into experiences that can shape their character and perspective.

Suffering does not get transformed because we have a stiff upper lip or because we try really hard to have a good perspective. Just like our salvation, suffering gets transformed because God chooses to do it. The Holy Spirit is the actor here, not us. When you are suffering, it is not your job to try to grow your character from the experience. There is no pressure for you to make something good out of something terrible. That is the Holy Spirit’s job.

Many, many people at Sloane Kettering shared their stories of suffering with Humans of New York. We heard from parents and their children who survived cancer and parents of children who did not. Some entries were almost unreadable because the pain of their subjects was so palpable.   But by sharing their stories, Humans of New York raised $3.4 million dollars from its readers to donate toward cancer research to help find cures for children’s cancer. Those who suffered helped create hope, just by sharing their stories, even if they were feeling hopeless. The Holy Spirit is mysterious and does not always show up in the ways we hope it will. The Holy Spirit’s job is not to protect us from pain, as much as we would like it to. But the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are constantly at work in our lives, shaping us into the people they have created us to be. They will not abandon us. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

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Proper 24, Year B, 2015

The last few weeks the Old Testament readings have given us a taste of Job’s story. The book of Job is a very unusual one. Job is not part of any narrative history, like Moses or David. In fact Israel is not even mentioned. Job is a stand alone mythic tale written about human suffering.

In the story, God is meeting with his heavenly beings, Satan being one of them. God remarks about this righteous man, Job, and Satan challenges him. Satan says, “Of course he is righteous, you’ve made him prosperous and he is surrounded by a loving family. Why wouldn’t he be righteous?” God is convinced Job will remain righteous, so he allows Satan to interfere with Job’s life. Job’s animals are stolen, his children are killed, and he is given a terrible skin disease that makes him anathema to every one around him.

Job is devastated and just wants to die, but he remains faithful to God. Three of his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar come to comfort him. At first they spend a week just silently supporting Job, but then the friends start giving helpful advice. They say things like, “I guess your children died because God needed a few more angels” and “God won’t give you more than you can bear.” and “Everything happens for a reason.”

Okay, so his friends don’t say those things.

But they are sure they have the answers to Job’s problems. Eliphaz suggests that Job should be happy to be experiencing God’s discipline. Bildad suggests Job should just pray harder. Zophar is convinced that Job must be hiding some secret sin and if Job would just be honest about it, God would restore everything that had been taken away from him.

You can just hear Job groaning as he replies to each of his friends, assuring them that he has been praying, that he has remained righteous, but that all of this suffering is happening anyway. He is utterly miserable and just wants God to send him to Sheol so he does not need to suffer any more. Job pleads his case before God, wanting answers, wanting relief.

Once his friends are done talking, a young man who has been listening to the conversation, decides he just has to jump in and give Job his perspective. He tells Job that Job has been dwelling too much on the negative and if he just focused on how great God is, everything will turn around for him.

Poor Job. Everyone wants to weigh in on his problems, and the only One he wants to hear from is God.

Job’s story is universally understood, because everyone has suffered at some point in his or her life. Everyone has been ill, or lost a loved one, or had serious financial problems. We all know the feeling of being completely overwhelmed, unable to help ourselves. We can also relate to the experience of people around us not really knowing how to help. How many of our mothers just can’t help but give us unasked for advice? How many of our friends give us awkward words of comfort? How many of us have had strangers weigh in on our lives? We get Job. We get his grief, his feelings of isolation and his anger. We, too, want to know why God lets terrible things happen to us. If God loves us, shouldn’t he protect us?

Job desperately wants answers from God and for God to help him.

But when God finally answers Job, and appears in a whirlwind, it becomes clear that God is not interested in giving Job the kind of pastoral care for which he was hoping!

Instead God summons Job:

Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

And then a series of questions:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you?

Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may goand say to you, `Here we are’?

Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together?

Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert?

Phew! Is this the heavenly equivalent of God saying, “Because I’m your mother, that’s why!” For the whole story, Job has been the center of the universe. All the action and terrors have been focused on Job. And that’s how it feels when we suffer, right? When we are in pain, all we can see is our own experience.

But here is God, reminding Job that God remains at the center of the universe. He’s not saying this to diminish Job, in fact, he tells Job to “Gird up his loins”. He wants Job to contend with him. But God places himself firmly in the position of the Creator who knows his creation more deeply than any human ever could. God knows the deep order of the universe—and there is a deep order, the sun rising and setting, the tides moving in and out, birth and death—even if our lives feel like chaos. God reminds Job of the beauty of the world.

David Henson, in a beautiful homily titled “What Job and God learn from each other” writes:

Instead, God responds with beauty.

Job cast a vision of a world overshadowed by pain and suffering. God responds by showing him the beauty and hope of the same world.

And here’s the thing. I’m not sure these are competing views. I don’t think the one negates the other. God doesn’t respond with beauty to cancel out or disregard Job’s suffering. I think that’s why God doesn’t exactly answer Job’s question about suffering. Because no answer — even one from God — is ever satisfactory in the midst of our pain and grief. Nothing solves suffering. Nothing answers it. But neither is suffering and grief the whole story of our lives and of the world. There is beauty, and grace, and hope in the world, too, existing simultaneously, in paradox, side-by-side

God’s answer, God’s presence is enough for Job. Job responds in wonder:

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.

God does not provide any easy answers or apologize for the suffering Job has experienced. But being reassured that God has not abandoned him and that the world is filled with order and beauty, even in the midst of Job’s suffering, leaves Job satisfied.

In crisis, sometimes that experience of the presence of God is enough to sustain us. We may not know how to move forward from our crisis, but if we can sense God is with us, that can be enough to keep us going. And remembering there is deep order and beauty to the universe can help us remember our problems are not the end of the story. We have a future.

Job’s story does not end with this holy encounter. Job goes on to have more flocks, more children. He has a new beginning after his tragedy. This new beginning does not replace everything he has lost. New children cannot replace children who have died. His pain and grief still lie underneath this new beginning. But he does not remain paralyzed by his suffering, but is able to move forward, with God’s help.

May God bless you with a deep sense of his presence and a conviction that, no matter what is happening in your life, that even now God is preparing a new beginning for you. Amen.

Proper 7, Year A, 2014

Welcome to the latest installment of Real Housewives of the Old Testament!

Okay, so this piece of Genesis does not come out of Bravo’s studios, but it is quite dramatic. The lectionary—our Sunday readings—are going to stay in Genesis most of the summer. Because of when Pentecost fell this year, we have dropped smack dab in the middle of Abraham and Sarah’s story, so let me catch you up. Abraham and Sarah were called by God to follow him. He did not say where, he did not give them a road map or leave them GPS. And they did it! They picked up their household, all their stuff, and began a life of following God. God promised to make a nation out of them—that Sarah and Abraham would have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky.

There was one problem. Sarah and Abraham could not conceive a child. For years they followed God and God kept reiterating the promise, but it seemed totally laughable, especially since they were already in their 70s when God made his promises to them. So, Sarah hatched a plan. Deciding that clearly God had not thought everything through, she gave her handmaiden to her husband as an additional wife so they could conceive a child together. (What an anniversary present!) Abraham and Hagar had a little boy named Ishmael. Great, right? Well, no. As soon as Hagar conceived, she and Sarah began to fight. Eventually Hagar fled, but God told her to go back!

Years later, Sarah actually conceived and bore a child named Isaac. You would think that would solve everything, right? But no, Sarah sees Ishmael playing and laughing and cannot stand it. Ishmael represents a threat to Isaac’s inheritance, not to mention a reminder of her own poor decision making. Sarah asks Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael out. When Abraham checks with God, God reassures Abraham they will be cared for. God has gone through a lot with Abraham and Sarah. His goal is to be in relationship with a people and to see the promises he’s made come to pass. The narrative should have been Sarah and Abraham waited patiently, finally had Isaac, boom! promise delivered. Instead Sarah disrupts the plan and Hagar and Ishmael become victims of her regret. And so, they disappear off stage, bread and water in hand.

In another story, that would be the last we heard from Hagar and Ishmael. They don’t fit in with the covenant God has promised Abraham. Why do we need to hear the rest of their story? God may have had a plan for Abraham and Sarah, but our God is a God of love. Hagar and Ishmael may not be part of the covenant, but God’s attachments flow beyond his initial promises. We get a heartbreaking scene where the pair are out of water, so Hagar leaves Ishmael under a tree and walks away so she doesn’t have to watch him die. She weeps and weeps to God and the text says, “And God heard the voice of the boy.” This may seems strange, since it is Hagar who is crying. But the name Ishmael actually means “God hears”. I’m sure when Abraham decided to name him God hears he was thinking of the glory of God’s promise to him, but it turns out that God hears suffering, too. God hears the cries of those who have been shut out, manipulated, abused. God hears the cries of people who are shoved to the sidelines God didn’t just offer comfort, God made a nation out of Ishmael. God saved their lives and lifted them back into society.

God hasn’t stopped hearing the cries of those who suffer. He knows what grieves your heart. He knows the ways you fear for those you love. He knows the ways you have been betrayed. He hears your cries. Too often, we think we have to bear our suffering alone. We come to church, dressed to the nines. We greet our friends with a smile and a platitude, even when our hearts are breaking. One of the gifts we can give to each other as the Body of Christ, is to listen to each other’s cries. But that means someone has to cry first!

One of my favorite books about the power of crying out to God is Frederick Buechner’s Telling Secrets. In it, he tells the grueling story of his father’s alcoholism and suicide and the family’s subsequent silence on the matter. It is only when he begins telling the story of his father’s death, that he experiences true healing. As he reflects on his experience he writes,

I have come to believe that by and large the human family all has the same secrets, which are both very telling and very important to tell. They are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition—that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are—even if we tell it only to ourselves—because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier that way to see where we have been in our lives and where we are going. It also makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own, and exchanges like that have a lot to do with what being a family is all about and what being human is all about.

 

We become more human, and more connected to ourselves and each other, when we tell the truth about our lives. But telling the truth can be very counter cultural. I can’t stop thinking this week about that picture of Richard Martinez and Peter Rodger that was released last week. Richard Martinez was the father of a young man killed by Elliot Rodger in Isla Vista a few weeks ago. Very soon after the shooting, he gave a very angry speech in which he held politicians responsible for policies that led to the shooting. For a few days his speech was admired as a remarkable outburst of articulate rage. Of course, since media cycles don’t like to admire anyone for too long, soon Martinez began getting criticized for not grieving appropriately, for seeking the limelight in a time where he should have been tucked away somewhere being appropriately sad. Instead of retreating and behaving in a way the world would think is appropriate, Richard Martinez had a private meeting with Peter Rodger, the father of the shooter. The two came out of the meeting vowing to fight for policies that help the mentally ill and stop the kind of gun violence we’ve seen too much of lately.

There is one picture taken of them at this event where their arms are wrapped each other’s shoulders and they stare at the camera with a gaze that captures all their grief and all their defiance. They are letting their cries ring out, and why shouldn’t they? What happened to them was the most excruciating event that can happen to a parent. In telling each other their stories, in crying out to each other, I hope the slow road to healing began. And I hope God hears their cries, and begins to heal them, and our country.

I don’t know all of you, but I know many of you, and I promise you no one in this room lives a life without suffering. We’re pretty lucky, I know. Many of us have income and a roof over our heads and people who love us. But suffering comes in many forms—conflict with a loved one, illness or mental illness of a loved one, loneliness, financial strain, being a survivor of abuse, physical impairment. My dream is that one day instead of dressing all perfectly for church, we would just walk in the room wearing T-shirts that named our suffering. How freeing would it be to realize we were all in this together, broken and crying out to God? Because God does still hear our prayers, but since we are the body of Christ, he may be calling us to be part of his answer. In listening to one another with love and care, we can embody God’s love and care for us.

May we be Christ to one another, bearing one another’s sorrows as we do our best to continue the journey of faith Abraham and Sarah and Hagar began for us. Amen.

Trinity Sunday, Year C, 2010

Have you seen the movie Wall-E?  While the protagonist of the movie is an adorable trash compacting robot, what I found really interesting was its depiction of humanity.  In the movie, humans have evolved in such a way as to spare them any suffering.  They float around in chairs, so they don’t have to walk.  They stare at screens instead of engaging in risky human interaction.  When they are hungry or thirsty, robots hurriedly bring them refreshment.

We are not quite there in our society yet, but there is a lot of money made every year on products trying to make life a little less painful.  We make luxury cars with surround sound satellite radio so commuting is comfortable.  We make diet pills and elaborate exercise machines so we can lose weight without making too many sacrifices.  We make lightweight electronic books, so we don’t have to schlep around ten pounds of novels when we’re on vacation.

We are incredibly lucky to live in a society where we can protect ourselves from an enormous amount of suffering—we have running water and indoor toilets; our doctors are trained in hygiene and anesthesia; our police, fire brigades and EMTS protect us without bribes.

And yet, even with all of our advances we can never protect ourselves fully from suffering.  Our hearts will still be broken.  Our loved ones will still die, some years before they should. Our bodies will still betray us.  Suffering is a fundamental part of what it means to be human.

Now, if I were marketing a religion, I would make sure that part of the package would be a promise of relief from suffering.  I would tell my followers that if they just followed my God, they would receive an easy life, filled with pleasure.  Paul, however (and that’s St. Paul, not our rector), does not seem to be working with a PR consultant.

In the letter to the Romans, Paul acknowledges what all of us know.  Suffering is part of life and a part of faith.  None of us can escape suffering, no matter how much we try to pad our life with luxuries.  Paul captures this beautifully in the 8th chapter of Romans, writing:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

This image of all of us, along with all of Creation, leaning forward, groaning, waiting for God really captures the human experience.  When something awful happens:  a child’s death, long term unemployment, hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil about to destroy miles of coastline, there is nothing we can do, but groan our prayers and hope for redemption.

But, Paul’s view of suffering is not entirely negative.

Whenever my sister and I grumbled about doing something that annoyed us, my father would tell us, “You’ll build character!”  At first Paul’s stair step argument in Romans 5 can feel a little bit like a parent telling us to grin and bear our suffering.

Paul writes that we can boast in our suffering and that our suffering will lead to endurance, which will lead to character, which will end in hope.

We all know that suffering does not necessarily produce that outcome.  We all know people for whom suffering has done nothing but embitter them.  So, when we read this text, we may read it cautiously.  We may hold it at arms’ length and think to ourselves, “Oh yeah, Paul?  Prove it.”

We are helped when we understand the context in which Paul is writing.  Paul has been telling the Romans how no one is righteous.  No one can keep the law.  No one can earn righteousness before God.  Paul goes on to explain that through Jesus ‘ willing sacrifice, we are granted righteousness before God.  That righteousness is given to us as pure gift.

In our passage today, Paul is explaining what that gift gives us.  The gift reconciles us to God, giving us peace with our Creator.  We use this passage on Trinity Sunday, because Paul goes on to say that the Holy Spirit pours God’s love in our hearts.  So, the Father sends the Son, who sacrifices himself so we can be at peace with God.  He in turn sends the Holy Spirit, who fills us with God’s love.

So, transformation of suffering into hope is part of this gift, too.  Paul is probably talking about eschatalogical suffering here—suffering having to do with the end of times—since Paul thought Jesus’ return was immanent.  But really, we are all moving toward the Kingdom of God, and we all experience suffering on the way, so I think it is fair to say that our suffering can be included in this conversation.

What’s important to note here is that this transformation of suffering into hope is not something that the sufferer does.  Paul’s whole point is that that God’s gift to us is pure gift—and is not something we can earn.  We can place ourselves before God and pray that our suffering might be transformed into endurance, character and hope.  But we should never use this passage as a weapon against ourselves or anyone else who might be stuck in grief or pain or suffering of any kind.  This passage should never be used to nag or berate.  Instead, this passage offers us a beacon of hope.

Paul’s words offer us hope that our tears and pain may deepen and broaden our compassion, rather than harden our hearts.  His words offer us hope that our crises may make us into more mature, thoughtful people.  His words offer us hope that we might yet be transformed into people of hope—people who so in touch with God’s presence, that our hearts feel deep peace.

We don’t need to be like the characters in Wall-E, completely protected from pain.

Paul’s words give us courage to face the world honestly.  They give us courage to step out of our padded luxury cars, put down our laptops, turn off our televisions.  Paul’s words give us courage to face our broken hearts and bodies head on, knowing that God can transform our suffering into something that betters us.

In my last parish, I had a friend who was in her 80s.  She had a series of health scares, including an episode of congestive heart failure that was completely terrifying to her.  She called me in the midst of all of her struggles and asked if I could come see her.  When I went to visit her, I expected to hear about her pain, her fears, maybe her loneliness.  Instead, she told me, “Sarah, I want to talk with you, because my pain has made me think about all the people in pain around the world.  I want to use this as an opportunity to pray for those people.”

That moment has been one of the most profound of my entire life, because she exemplified what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Romans.  God gave her the grace to experience her suffering as a broadening, deepening experience.  Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she found a way to reach out to the world and care for them through her prayers.  The love of God flowed through her and out to those for whom she prayed.

And whether we are people who feel that kind of hope, or not, Paul is right when he says that God’s hope will not disappoint us.  Because the gift of Jesus’ sacrifice, the gift of God’s love poured out by the Holy Spirit, is our gift, even in our deepest suffering.  Even at our terrified, grief stricken, self-absorbed worst.  Even when we feel not one iota of character or endurance or hope, God’s love pours out for us.  And that love will not disappoint us.

Amen.