Friday, October 19, 2012

Proper 29, Year B

To Suffer, To Serve

Readings: Job 38:1-7; Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

Two incongruous themes are interwoven throughout the readings. We are reminded once again that the Church is meant to be a serving church in the world, that greatness comes through service; but we are reminded also that service does not come without suffering. Being good and living righteously does not mean that we will not suffer. There is no short cut to God’s favour. Indeed, the path to glory is one that, more often than not, requires that the innocent must suffer.

Job struggles to understand why he is suffering while he continues to serve God. He calls on all of his resources, his friends, family and neighbours. They have many suggestions for him. “Look at the evil in yourself! Blame God! Give up!” But through it all he remains faithful to God. In one of the most poignant passages of the Old Testament, God speaks to him out of the chaos and disorder. And from those words of wisdom come the order and clarity that Job needs.

“What right,” God asks him, “do you have to question me? Do you presume to know the whole picture? Were you present at creation? What would this chaos be like if you were in charge?” Job realizes that not only does he lack knowledge; he is powerless before God. Who of us has not felt that awesome presence of God as we struggle to bring order to the chaos in our own lives?

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews presents Jesus as the Great High Priest. There is a difference though between Jesus and the rabbinical High Priests. For Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. It is that which enables him to identify fully with us in our weakness. Through his own suffering he knows the full extent of human suffering. He understands our human frailty with all of its limitations and trials. His suffering brings us into direct relationship with God.

In the Gospel, the disciples are trying to manipulate Jesus. “Promise us something!” they ask him.

“What is it you want me to do for you?”

And they ask, “Let us sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Don’t you have to ask yourself where they have been all this time? Have they ever listened to one thing Jesus has told them? Do they understand what is at stake?

And Jesus tells them why he came. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many,” he says, explaining the purpose of his life. His life is one of service and suffering. He sets before them the example of true greatness. Jesus overturns ordinary values in society. Authority comes through service. Through his innocent suffering he serves humanity and alleviates the sinful suffering of those who follow him.

We are not much on suffering these days. Our lives are pretty easy. We can switch channels when it becomes too much for us. We can turn our heads away and avoid the poverty and suffering around us. We can assuage our consciences by sending money while avoiding the risk of danger or disease. We can persuade ourselves that it is not our fault and that we bear no responsibility for the suffering of others.

But we simply cannot avoid the fact that to be human is to suffer. It is one of the conditions of human existence. It continues to be one of the most difficult faith questions for us to deal with. Why does God not simply change the human condition? Is suffering God’s will? If we say that suffering is God’s will, what do we mean? Do we mean that God intends that we suffer? That God causes suffering? That God brings about suffering for our own good? That was certainly the message of Job’s friends. It is often, even unthinkingly, the message conveyed to people who are sick.

It is not helpful to a person struggling with cancer to hear that it is God’s will. It is not helpful to a woman involved in an abusive marriage to be told that she must go back to her abuser because it is God’s will. It is not helpful to our First Nations people to hear that their poverty and difficulties came about because they needed to turn to Christianity. Such teaching – and I assure you that none of the examples I’ve given are fictitious – turns the Church into an oppressor. And that is contrary to the message that we are called to be a serving church.
So why do people suffer? Why do good people suffer? C.S. Lewis was asked that very question, "Why do the righteous suffer?" "Why not?" he replied. "They're the only ones who can take it."
The question then becomes, how do we draw the line between suffering that is part of creation’s goodness and suffering that is harmful? The line must surely be drawn at the point at which suffering ceases to serve life. It does not serve life for a victim of abuse to stay in an abusive relationship. It does not serve life for our First Nations people to continue to live in poverty. Such suffering requires repentance on the part of the perpetrator. It requires societal change.

We must recognize that there are times when suffering, either our own or that of someone close to us, brings us closer to God; when we feel God’s presence breaking through to us. If that were not so, we wouldn’t be gathered here in this church. It happens like that moment when the sun breaks through the clouds and the rainbow forms in the sky. All of the conditions are right. We see God’s glory so clearly at that point that we find ourselves in God’s very presence. Such times of deep spiritual clarity help us to know God’s presence when times are difficult. It is the kind of experience that Job had as God spoke out of the chaos of the whirlwind. It brings order to the chaos.

It is important for us to know that God participates in human suffering. We need to know that nothing can separate us from God’s participating love. We need to really know it, because to know it is to be a vital part of God’s response to human suffering.

Suffering is part of our world. We see it in peoples’ daily struggle against sickness, poverty, disease. We see it in the indifference, the hatred, the exploitation that exist in our world. But our faith provides us with a process to deal with suffering, and ultimately to come closer to God. We need to renew, to recharge our faith from time to time, to make certain that we keep the faith. There will be wounds, even scars to remind us of the wounds. But there will also be grace that brings us closer to God.

O God, grant us the serenity and peace of knowing that you are always with us. Amen.

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