Sunday, August 31, 2008

A: Proper 17 (31 August 2008)

Matthew 16:21-28

While I was on my recent vacation, one of the children of our parish underwent an emergency appendectomy and one of our senior members suffered a health crisis that put him in Intensive Care for several days. Just after my return, another parishioner underwent surgery for a life-threatening condition. Over the past three months, at least three of our members who are “breadwinners” for their families have either lost a job or come very close to doing so. Each of these experiences has involved pain—either physical pain or emotional pain, or both. And the pain has been borne not only by those who were directly involved, but by those who are directly involved with them, spreading out like ripples on a pond.

Of course, there’s nothing unusual or extraordinary about any of this. Suffering and pain are all around us, part of the daily fabric of our lives. We suffer personally, for ourselves, and we suffer vicariously, along with others, both those whom we know and love and those whom we only read about or hear about. We suffer in trivial and minimal ways—a knick from a shaving razor or a traffic signal that turns red just before we get to the intersection, and when we’re late for an appointment. We also suffer in profound and tragic ways—losing a loved one to death, particularly if that death is, as we say euphemistically, “premature.” And we certainly suffer in countless ways that are neither trivial nor tragic, but just ordinary. Relationships go sour for any number of reasons, we don’t make the team, or get into our first choice of college, or get the job we knew was perfect for us. As the years pile up, our minds and bodies slowly work less and less efficiently and effectively. Suffering in all these ways is just part of life.

At times, Christians have believed that suffering is invariably sent by God as a punishment for sin. During my vacation, I read a novel about life in an English cathedral city in the fourteenth century. When the Plague arrived and people started dying in droves, the first conclusion most people jumped to was that the victims—or the town collectively—had displeased God in some really major way, and sickness was a just punishment for their sins. But this has never been a very satisfying explanation. In the first instance, epidemics seem to be no respecter of moral status; both the just and the unjust fall victim. Saints get sick and die in epidemics with the same frequency as sinners.

And when we simply take suffering on its own terms, the outlook seems even gloomier. When we accept suffering as something that just is, as morally neutral, then it is difficult to see in it any meaning or significance. The best we can say to the families of those who were killed when a plane crashed in Spain a couple of weeks ago is, “Well, accidents happen. Get over it.” The most we can say to those who lost loved one when the earth quaked in China earlier this year is, “Tectonic plates shift; move on.” By this account, when cancer cells metastasize or someone gets behind the wheel drunk, or a quarrel with his wife the previous night causes an airplane inspector to miss noticing evidence of metal fatigue, we are nothing more than helpless victims. Our suffering has no meaning, no purpose, no significance. It’s just a fact. And this is a singularly depressing thought. It leads eventually and inevitably to terminal despair, and despair—loss of hope— is a spiritually fatal condition. It separates us from God as surely as the very gates of Hell.

This is how it must have seemed to Peter and the other apostles when Jesus announced to them his impending suffering and death. He had recruited them on a mission that they presumed was going to culminate in Jesus somehow seizing political power, kicking out the Roman occupiers, and re-establishing God’s righteous rule over Israel through a royal descendent of King David—namely, Jesus. So when he starts talking to them about going up to Jerusalem and suffering at the hands of the Jewish religious establishment, and finally getting killed, they thought he must have eaten the wrong sort of wild mushrooms for breakfast. He was departing from the script that they thought came directly from him. Peter in particularly could not abide the thought of everything Jesus had said and done (and everything he had led Peter is saying and doing) simply ending with Jesus’ suffering and death—nothing accomplished, nothing brought to completion, no grand triumph, just senseless suffering and meaningless victimhood. The thought filled him with despair.

But if we pay close attention to what Jesus says, we see the seeds of something different: Jesus will go to Jerusalem, not be taken there. It is something proactive and voluntary on his part. He is no mere helpless victim. And then Jesus counsels his followers to take up the cross: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” He’s not talking about accepting the cross, or having it laid on them. I’ve always been struck how, when we walk the Stations of the Cross during Lent, the traditional name of the Second Station is “Jesus takes up his cross.” There’s nothing passive about it. It’s by an affirmative act that he ends up on the cross.

We know, of course, from hindsight, what the fruit, the long-term effect, of Jesus’ Passion turns out to be: the salvation of our souls and the redemption of the world; the conquest of evil and victory of truth and love. Included in all this, of course, is the cessation of suffering—both minor suffering and major suffering. Part of our incorporation into Christ is to bend our experience to the pattern of his life and death. This doesn’t mean that we seek out suffering unnecessarily. As most of us have learned, suffering will find us soon enough; we don’t have to go looking for it. But conforming ourselves to the redemptive pattern of our Lord’s suffering does mean that we embrace the suffering that comes our way intentionally. We don’t let it tackle us from behind; we turn and face it and embrace it. We turn and face it and say, “Hey! You lookin’ for me? Well I’m right here. Come and get me.” We “take it up,” even as Jesus took up his cross.

Such suffering—suffering that is molded to the pattern of Christ’s suffering—has the capacity to be not only “un-meaningless,” but actually redemptive. Suffering that we take up, and offered up, intentionally in union with the redemptive suffering of Christ—this, by the way, is exactly what we’re doing when we celebrate the Eucharist, particularly when we lay out gifts of bread and wine on the altar; they represent, among other things, our suffering, and we are offering them in union with Christ’s suffering)—when we do this, our suffering becomes a thread in the great tapestry that God is weaving as he brings light out of the darkest places in human experience, wholeness out of the most broken pieces of our lives, truth from the very midst of falsehood and confusion, life from the jaws of death, and hope from the deepest pit of despair. This is a redemption that is signed and sealed with Jesus’ death and resurrection, but it is delivered one day at a time, one life at a time, one hurt at the time. When we take up the cross, we participate in that delivery of redemption. We will probably not, in this life, see how that happens. We will not know the impact that every little decision we make to embrace suffering rather than let ourselves be passive victims has on the lives of others and the fabric of redemption. But it does. In that assurance we can place our faith.

Suffering, as we have seen, “happens.” We can try to evade it, and perhaps succeed at times for a while. But it will catch up with us all eventually. We can accept it passively or fatalistically, along the lines “Que serĂ¡ sera.” But that leaves us as victims and our suffering as meaningless. Nothing is more tragic than meaningless suffering! But as disciples of Jesus, we have the invitation to “read ourselves” into the story of Christ’s redemption of the world through his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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