(Vintage cross, a lovely way to honor our first daughter, Rachel, who would have turned twenty-five Monday on the feast of the Chair of Peter and loved the lilacs which bloomed on the day of our car accident).
Today’s reading from Mark demonstrates a crucial theme of his Gospel, pithily summed up by one of my favorite exegetes: my daughter Katie Rose. We enjoyed a lively discussion as we listened to James Earl Jones read Mark on a mother-daughter roadschool trip up the coast of California and Oregon this summer, and as we neared the end of the story she remarked: “So basically, Jesus’ disciples are total dorks.” Give that girl an A! Mark consistently shows the disciples frustrating Jesus with their lack of understanding of his message and ministry. And they are right in that target zone today with their stunned silence at Jesus’ second prediction of his passion and resurrection. They didn’t understand what it meant, but were afraid to ask him about it. Instead they distract themselves from the uncomfortable topic with a charming and mature argument about who is the greatest—followed by an even more embarrassing silence when Jesus wryly asks them what they were talking about on the road.
The disciples’ anxiety is understandable, though, if we remember the Gospel from last week where Jesus announced this unpleasant news for the first time. No one wanted to be in Peter’s situation—going from being praised for his insight that Jesus is the chosen one of Israel to being called Satan for his resistance to the path Jesus knew his integrity would lead him to. And they definitely didn’t want to hear that they too, if they chose to follow Jesus in a prophetic way of life calling out the world’s evil, would sometimes face suffering in the cause of justice and love.
So how do we deal with suffering—our own, and that of others? This is the heart-wrenching challenge that everyone faces in different ways at different times in our lives, especially if try to keep our hearts open in the face of tragedies like the refugee crisis in Syria, the endless wars in the name of nationalism and religion, the abuse fueled by racism, sexism, heterosexism and transphobia, and every other form of injustice that breaks the heart of our loving God. As Father H. mentioned last week, the cross—a central part of the Christian message—can be dangerous. Far too often, it has been abused as a weapon of oppression—telling the victims of abuse and injustice to accept their suffering as God’s will, to suppress their justified anger and to forgive without safety, repentance or amends--which also fails perpetrators by not calling them to the grace of real transformation. And this kind of “spiritual bypass” is not limited to Christianity or other traditional religions. Some forms of new age spirituality focus so much on abundance and positive thinking that they can shame and blame those who are not able to change their painful life situations—often because they don’t have the privilege and resources taken for granted by those who criticize them.
So what is our call as individuals, and as a progressive Christian community? How can we face the reality of suffering in a lifegiving way, helping those who suffer—including ourselves—to connect with the love of God which heals, strengthens, consoles, and raises to new life? There are no easy answers to this dilemma. But let’s explore the scriptures we have heard proclaimed this week, and relate them to the sacredness of our lived experience—another way we experience the word of God. There we will find some clues from the Spirit, some invitations to explore-and some false directions to avoid—as we seek to speak the truth in love and be a living presence of Christ in our church and our world.
The first reading, from Wisdom, speaks in the voice of people who are doing evil and are challenged by the just. They band together to silence and punish the prophetic speaker, sarcastically saying that God will vindicate them anyway if they are correct. This reminds us of how often suffering is not God’s will, but comes from the misuse of human free will. And it invites us to avoid one of the most hurtful responses to suffering--especially when it is caused by sin. This is to say, outright or by implication, that the suffering is God’s will—which goes along with saying, outright or by implication, that the victims shouldn’t feel too sad—and definitely shouldn’t feel mad. My husband and I received not-so-subtle messages along this line from some people when we lost our oldest child, Rachel, in a car crash caused by a dangerous driver on I-94. People said that she was with God now, as if she hadn’t been in our house, and as if this were good news for someone who only enjoyed fifteen months of earthly blessings while bringing joy to all who met her.
We understood that people said things like this with good intentions, trying to ease our intense pain—but they unintentionally made it worse by making it unsafe to share the whole experience—including the messy feelings often judged as negative. In contrast, when people could really listen and honor all our feelings, without trying to fix them, we experienced the gritty compassion of God. This is the God witnessed to in one of my favorite parts of the Hebrew Bible—the psalms of lament. These show totally honest prayer pouring out grief and rage to God for permitting personal suffering, and that of the community, trusting that God –like a truly loving parent, partner, or friend—honors the trust and courage that this honesty demonstrates and helps the pray-er move through and naturally release challenging emotions, rather than suppressing them only to have them pop up and blindside us in another context.
Like the writers and singers of the psalms, and Jesus, who as a faithful Jew must have prayed them often, we learned by lived experience that like Jesus who fiercely called out the injustice of his day, God was weeping and raging with us at the tragedy, and inspiring us not to passively accept the evil as divinely willed but to speak out for safer conditions on that stretch of highway to prevent similar tragedies from happening to other families. I believe it was this same honest sharing of feelings that Jesus was looking for from his disciples in our Gospel reading. He was truly human, so he must have experienced both fear and pain as he faced the apparent failure of his ministry and the fact that his stance of nonviolent resistance would lead, as with so many prophets, to persecution and death.
Perhaps this was why he turned to the example of a child as he invited them to a more compassionate and reverent stance in the face of suffering. Children are especially vulnerable, and --especially when they are loved and secure—especially honest about their feelings and needs. I am guessing that each person in this room can remember similar experiences of suffering, when our inner child can be so close to the surface—sometimes finding hurtful words or hurtful silence, and sometimes finding loving words or loving silence which mediated the healing and resurrecting power of God. The 12 Step movement powerfully names this experience in both intimate relationships and healthy communities as “God with skin on”—making visible and tangible in our lives the love of God whom we cannot see. As we come to the holy table where we receive who we are, the precious Body of Christ, let’s open to Jesus’ healing power for the painful memories and take strength and consolation from the grateful ones. Let’s recommit ourselves, as we follow Christ our Good Shepherd, to be “God with skin on”—the presence of Christ comforting and challenging the suffering world that he immensely loves.