Hope in the Mess
[Trigger warning - this sermon includes discussion of parental suicide]
Over the last 6 months, we have worked through the majority of the difficult question that you all wrote down for God. We have engaged God’s Word with questions about why the world is full of pain, what our lives are for, whether heaven is real and Jesus is coming back, and what God has in store for us.
But as I was skimming over the remaining questions this week, I realized that there is one that I have been avoiding: "Is all this change going to be good?"
That question makes me anxious.
It makes me anxious because I’m not entirely sure what change it is talking about, but (given the timing of when it was asked) I suspect it has to do with the political environment… and making global value judgments about what is “good” in that context is tricky to do from the pulpit.
It also makes me anxious because I am not a fortune teller – I have no more insight about what the future holds than any other adult who is paying attention, and they taught me in seminary that the Bible is NOT supposed to be used as a crystal ball…So how am I supposed to know the answer?
But most of all, it makes me anxious because it taps into a deep well of worry in my own soul. It gives words to the knot in my belly that I try to ignore, but that whispers to me in quiet moments with a sinister hiss:
“The future is insecure.”
“You are not in control.”
“Suffering is coming.”
When we worry about what the future holds, about whether anticipated changes will be good or bad, we are worrying about the potential for suffering that is hidden in the unknown.
The Bible is not a crystal ball to predict precisely what is coming in our lives or in our country, but the readings today do have quite a bit to say about suffering, and what they say can help us to untangle that knot of anxiety about what might happen, so that we can do what Jesus calls us to do:
First, our scriptures remind us that suffering is already here.
“When (Jesus) saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matt. 9:36)
The reality of suffering is ever present – if we open our eyes. Our gospel reading today highlights some of the most obvious kinds of suffering:
Physical sickness and disease
Family division and betrayal
(Is this starting to sound familiar?)
Jesus tells his followers that this is what they can expect to find in the world, and he also tells them to ASK GOD TO SEND THEM into the mess.
That’s right. This gospel does not just describe the reality of present suffering, it sends us into it! There is no avoiding the suffering. It’s here, and as followers of Jesus we are prohibited from even trying to defend ourselves against it – from taking supplies for the journey – from preparing precautions that can inure us from the consequences of reaching out in vulnerability, with compassion.
Because the example Christ sets for us in response to the reality of suffering is compassion. Compassion is different than pity, or even the desire to help. Compassion means suffering with: com – with, passion – suffering. When you have compassion for someone, you don’t hold their pain at a safe distance – you come beside them and suffer with them.
This is the way of the cross. The way of choosing weakness because that is how to draw close to those who are in need: to see the vulnerability of sheep without a shepherd, and to enter the suffering as sheep ourselves (Matt. 10:16). Knowing we cannot protect ourselves. Knowing that our only hope is to trust the Spirit of our Father, who works through us and promises to save us (Matt. 10:20,22).
If we are following Christ’s command, suffering is an inevitable part of life in one shape or another – so there’s no point in worrying about it. And we don’t have to fear it.
Because even though we are as vulnerable to suffering as those God sends us to suffer with, we don’t go alone. Christ goes with us – all the way to the cross – and comes through on the other side with a promise of salvation that transforms our experience of what it means to suffer.
All of this is a good (if difficult) challenge for the anxiety that might hold us back from doing the work to which Jesus is calling us… But what about those who are already in the midst of the suffering? What about those mourning loss this week, whether from senseless tragedies, intentional violence, racial injustice, or the loss of our dear sister Emily? What about those who don’t fear the possibility of suffering because it is already a present reality?
What good word do this week’s readings have for the crowds who are harassed and helpless, the sick, the tormented, the grieving, the persecuted, and the hated?
That is the hardest question to answer... Because I know how wounding it can be to dismiss the deep pain of suffering with a blithe quoting of today’s reading from Romans.
When we are down in the pit, it is NOT consoling to hear that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Hope feels like a poor remedy for pain… for the devastating reality of loss… for the ache that we can’t fix no matter how hard we try.
I know how pale and useless the promise of hope feels from the bottom of the pit because I have been down there. Father’s Day is an annual reminder of those depths for me, because my first depressive episode came after my father committed suicide when I was nineteen years old.
When you lose a loved one to suicide all of the trite, Christianese reassurances that everything works out in the end lose their meaning. Because it didn’t “work out in the end” for your loved one. They died in despair. Hope did disappoint them. Their story ended in pain, and loneliness, and the absence of love.
Like I said – I know the depths of pain. I know the false ring of assurances that faith will see you free. I know how unattainable the light seems from the bottom of the pit.
But, miraculously, I also know that the hope promised in this passage from Romans in NOT a lie… because, and only because, the hope flows from the love of God.
A love that has proved it will go down even to the grave to find us in the pit of our deepest weakness, and love us there.
In fact – that might be the only place that we can REALLY receive the profound gift that is God’s love. Because only there can we let go of the lie that we can ever meet our own needs without God.
Franciscan Father Richard Rohr connects the experience of suffering with this transformative understanding of our need for God. He writes:
“If suffering is ‘whenever we are not in control’…, then you see why some form of suffering is absolutely necessary to teach us how to live beyond the illusion of control and to give that control back to God. Then we become usable instruments, because we can share our power with God’s power.”
And, I would add, because then we can finally believe that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5)
So, through the lens of transformative hope, how do we answer the initial question: “Is all this change going to be good?”
The answer I find in today’s reading is that the changes are not what determines good or bad. Whether circumstances in our world or our lives get better or worse, there will still be suffering, AND that is not the deepest truth.
The suffering, in itself, is not good and it should not be glorified. It requires our intervention to prevent and heal it to the extent that we can; we are called by God to reach out to the harassed and helpless…
But we must not give suffering more control than it deserves. Our goal cannot be to avoid all suffering – the attempt, in addition to being futile, directs our efforts to the wrong thing.
We follow a God who entered into our suffering to bring us the resurrection on the other side… a Savior who has forever transformed our experience of suffering because we know that it is not the end of the story – not even for those who die in pain and despair.
Because while we were still sinners - STILL IN THE PIT - Christ died for us to prove to us that God loves us through absolutely EVERYTHING.
So, regardless of the changes in our world or in our lives, we have this hope. Hope in the love God proved to us on the cross, and hope in the resurrection that comes after.
And no matter what changes bring, that hope is always good.
Thanks be to God.