“The son of man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him”
Last week I preached on the necessity to be bold in our confession, to make our apologia – our rational defense – of our faith in Jesus Christ. Remember we don’t all have to sound the same, faith does not makes us automatons, robots for Jesus. Rather, I believe God takes pleasure in a variety of voices and perspectives – and even heresies. This I believe.
However, probably the number one cause both for the gut attraction to faith – this kind of fascination with faith – and also the number one cause for questioning, or doubting and ultimately saying , “No, thank you!” to Christianity, has to do with suffering; Why bad things happen to good people, why 3,000 innocents were killed on 9/11, why cancer strikes, why tidal waves destroy, why innocent little babies are born in pain, why 6,000,000 Jews are slaughtered.
Why, God, why?
And from the macro-horrors to the micro-concerns, such as “Why can’t my kid get a break?”, “Why did I lose my job?”, “Why can’t I feel better?”, the presence of God’s absence lingers like some mist on a hillside that just won’t blow away.
It is the “why” that draws and the “why” that repels us. It’s kind of like that word “cleave” that can mean completely opposite things. “Cleave to” means to hold on tight and to join together. AND it also means “to cleave”- means to cut in two and separate. And when we think about God, and how God works, it is a “both/and”; it’s not an “either/or.” So it seems to me that only if we are willing to stay in the mystery, to remain in the tension, will we, in time, cleave to that which gives wisdom, and the dross, the foolishness, the shallowness will be cleaved away.
Well, Jesus and his disciples are passing through Galilee, trying to fly under the radar, so to speak. There are no big crowds. Jesus wants to talk to his disciples, his inner team, alone. For what he has to say to them is simply way, way too heavy and too much for the crowds who like the show, who like the healings, who want the miracles, who want proof that God is on their side, who need evidence to quell the cynicism, and who are in just so much need, that getting theological just doesn’t work.
And you almost get the idea that Jesus is trying the message out, testing this discernment of his in his little inner focus group, teaching this almost heretical notion – no, not just almost, but downright heretical notion, that God is going to show power in weakness, that God is going to manifest divine presence in absence, that God is going to share life through a death, that God is going to reveal this magnificent love that embraces all, by suffering. By having his arms literally nailed open to show the possibility of an embrace.
I think this message is a little too weird for Jesus at that moment too. But it is in his head, it’s been laid on his heart and it’s in his gut and he has to speak this truth to his disciples lest they be led on that this is going to be a joy ride; that they are going to swoop into Jerusalem and whip up the people and kick out the Romans and restore the Kingdom of Israel.
“Look,” he says, “I am going to be betrayed. I’m going to die. And three days after I will rise.”
I wonder if those words didn’t sound utterly strange to Jesus himself, as they were uttered out of his mouth. It’s as though Jesus has to share this craziness and trust that his disciples wouldn’t walk away.
The disciples don’t walk away, but they don’t understand what Jesus is talking about and seemingly in the next breath, they are showing themselves to be utter dolts, worrying about who is going to be the greatest of the disciples. Suffer? No way. Compete and triumph? Sure, isn’t that what life is all about?
But for those of us who buy into this madness, that God is going to be crucified, that God is going to suffer, that God is going to be absent, that God may not be around when you need God the most – well, we have some “splainin’ to do!” as Dezi Arnez used to say to Lucy.
You and I will probably never have a good enough answer to the problem of evil and suffering. We will never know.
I remember a story of a man who lost his wife tragically. It was one of those stories that breaks your heart and makes you wonder. This couple had a wonderful marriage, they had done so much good. They were at last going to have a few years together while they were still healthy and then one day in an accident she dies. The husband was totally devoted to her. And for days and weeks and months and even years he would wonder aloud “Why, God, why?” And then one day, he is walking across an open field, and the burden of his sadness is weighing heavy – “Why, God, why?” and he relates this sort of interior voice spoke to him and the words were, “You don’t need to know.” And from that moment, things began to change for him.
And I find that interesting. I mean, I’ve never gone through that kind of suffering. So I say that with real humility. Please forgive me. But it makes sense to me in other pieces of my life, that as we allow ourselves to let go of that question that dominates us – usually it’s a “why” question – we move into a different kind of strange freedom of control, of feeling presence. We will never have the answer – but sometimes the search for an answer can paralyze, and shut us down.
But I for one think it is peculiarly magnificent that fundamental to our narrative of Christian faith – and I want you to pay attention to this – is a God who becomes one of us – is incarnated, becomes flesh and blood. I mean, I don’t know how you prove that one either, but the thought of it is magnificent. You see, God is not outside the experience. God is intimate, knows the human condition, knows both how compassionate and cruel we can be and life can be, and God knows suffering, God knows the death of a son. And in some way God will not remove it, because God cannot.
God creates life and life happens – life is – divine and devilish and you can’t separate them. Life happens – both the triumphs and the tragedies. And God doesn’t take it away, because I don’t know if God can take it away, because God is in the midst of it and it would be like taking God away.
But for those who go down into suffering – this doesn’t always happen, but sometimes it does – if you go into suffering, open, willing to feel – well, I have seen the power, and I have seen the redemption, and I have seen God.
I was running the other day, listening to Krista Tippet interview a yoga master, who happens to be this youngish middle-aged woman who appears in Nike commercials. Her own life was very tough and she tells of her experience of coming through it, going through (you know that is what “suffer” means – to go through) these traumas into a realization that she felt a whole lot better when her body and her mind and her spirit and her breathing were in sync. It opened for her a deep spirituality of compassion, of caring, of holding all things loosely. And she tells of her call to volunteer with child prostitutes (and that’s another “Why, God, why?”), and of how they disdained her. But over time the relationships began to form and this yoga master didn’t tell of transformations of the kids, although I suspect there were some marvelous stories – she spoke of how much I learned, how much she herself was transformed, and she said this:
“I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, of course, but give me someone who has been to the edge of hell and back – because they know. And I want them for my teacher.”
And haven’t you had that experience? Aren’t you always amazed when you talk to somebody who has suffered, who has been to the edge and come back – or maybe they’re still in it, I don’t know – and yet they still can laugh and enjoy and rejoice, and they have that special wisdom, that unique knowledge, that presence – they KNOW. And so much of the time, I think our faith is trying to run away from suffering, because we don’t think God is there, and somehow we see it as judgment and it’s not at all, it’s just life. .
Again, I go to one of my favorite movies – the second of The Lord of the Ring’s trilogy “The Two Towers”. At the end of the first film, the great wizard Gandalf gets swept into the abyss with this huge, fiery, demonic thing called Balrog and they wrestle, and they die. But in the second movie we see that Gandalf did not die, but in the struggle he is changed, he is no longer wearing grey robes, but white robes.
And so I keep thinking, that while I don’t have the answer as to why God allows any of it – there is a strange madness and a strange wonder that God has entered into and knows the human condition so intimately that even suffering, real horror, is not outside of God’s transformative grace, not outside the divine experience – for the divine experience – if we take the Bible seriously – is essentially the human experience. And the most profound human experiences, both good I bad, are essentially divine.
No wonder the disciples didn’t understand, I don’t understand it, do any of us understand it? It is simply too big; I don’t get it either. And so I find it interesting that Mark, the gospel writer changes tack a wee bit – from this BIG theological question of God and suffering to have Jesus talk about servanthood and children.
And I wonder if the best answer to the dilemma about suffering is: Serve others. Be in community. so that mutual sharing and mutual service defeats the demons of isolation and fear. There is nothing worse than suffering alone, being cut off, feeling completely adrift. But, there are few things more powerful than suffering, going through things together, in community. That’s what changes the world.
I think of the prayer shawls that our Deacons give to folks “going through things” and how much it means. I think of saying a simple prayer over the phone to someone and how often you can feel the calm.
And as we go into the world in mission, and see the suffering all around – sure, ask the question “why,” for it is a good one. Why hunger? Why poverty? But then roll up your sleeves and serve. Lift up your voice and ask the systems and structures, “Why?” God is not always to blame, you know, Sometimes God waits for us to step up and act out. Serve, not because you have anything to give, but because you have so much to learn. For everyone who has ever been on a mission trip – you know the response – they always come back and say the same thing: “Well, I learned that there is much wealth in poverty, and much power in community and “those” people can be so joyful and prayerful.”
And there is something about children. I loved what Clover said at a baptism not too long ago about the birth of a child being God’s greatest hope for humankind. What an act of madness, (well, of passion, too) to bring a child into this world – and yet we do. And I wonder if the child is not a symbol of the kingdom of GOd for the very reason that a child is so vulnerable and a child reminds me, “So am I.” A child, particularly an infant, is completely at the mercy of someone else and it reminds me that really, in a profound way, “So am I.” A child is just greedy for love. So am I.
A child always asks the best questions and seems satisfied with the simple answers. I heard a wonderful story the other day, about a little girl who had never been to church before and on the day she came the church was serving communion. The little girl leaned over to the person who had brought her and asked, “What’s that?” Well, how do you explain the sacrament of communion to a child, particularly when the bread is five feet away? The woman responded, “Well, it’s a little cube of bread that shows us that we are loved and part of God’s community.”
And the little girl responded with a smile and said, “Great, a snack in the middle of church.”
Well? Well? Do you have a better answer?
So you see, the question of evil, the question of suffering is simply not going to be answered – life happens but there are children and there are others to serve and we ourselves need to be open to being served – and we find something divine in the interchange, and even though we can’t get our minds around it, we can get our hearts perhaps to feel, that maybe God is not distant, God is not absent – but God is closer than breath, and that the absurdity of crucifixion just might be the only answer.
I want to close by reading you an email that I received on 9/11. I think it may offer some insight into the teachings of Jesus and how Mark shaped them:
Dear John: To a father. My daughter, Erika, was a public defender working in lower Manhattan on 9/11/01. Erika was 8 months pregnant. When the concrete started falling, she went into shock. Shock triggered labor. NYPD found her on the side of the road and caravaned her to Mt. Sinai. They murdered 3,000 of us that day. We lost 3,000, but . . . at 4:45 pm, on 9/11, in lower Manhattan, in the midst of smoke and death, . . . we gained 1. This is Caleigh. She’ll be 8 on Friday.
Caleigh’s birth does not diminish suffering. Caleigh’s birth does not answer the question of “Why, God, why?” But Caleigh’s birth open us to amazement, wonder, thanksgiving, awe, tears – and I am not sure that we won’t find a hint to the riddle of the mystery of the enigma to which Jesus pointed and into which God is revealed.
Unto us a child is born!