This is a transcript from the March 3, 2019 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.
I wanted to start this morning talking about a tough subject, talking about the problem of suffering. I wanted to start in one of the toughest passages I know,
"My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"
It is even tougher for the reason that this is the prayer that Jesus prayed. This is the despair, this is the sentiment, this in the emotion of all the prayers that Jesus could have prayed. Of all the Psalms He remembered, of all the ones that came to His mind, this is the one and as one person said, "This prayer prayed by Jesus on the cross is either the end of all religion."
It's the end of all religion because everything we thought we knew about God is being contradicted right here. That God is the one who keeps us from suffering, that God is the one who delivers us from suffering, that the Christ of God, the anointed one, is the one who's supposed to lead us away from suffering and yet it's this one who is feeling most God-forsakenn. If that's true, then all religion falls apart or it's the beginning of something completely new and unique. That's where I want to start this morning. I want to start in that place.
I've been doing a passage or a series around the big questions, we called reason to believe. Here's the big questions and I haven't been trying to prove anything and I haven't been trying to dispute things when we talk about the Bible and we talk about science and we talk about doubt and we talk about the church. All of those are good to talk about-- So why do I still believe in the midst of all those things? So far, those have all been things that have been up here in the head. I can't make sense of them but this one, suffering.
This drops right down to here. Those other questions will make our head hurt, this one breaks our heart or as the Psalm says, "Our heart melts like wax." It just falls away. This idea of how can we make sense of the God-forsaken moments of our life and of our world. It gets to that, the Odyssey question. It's the big fancy name for that impossible triangle.
If God is the God who is all powerful and if God is all loving then how can there possibly be so much suffering in the world?
You've heard all the explanations, I know I have too. There's a time when they used to make sense but they don't anymore and they haven't for a long time, so, why do I still believe?
I know what the answers have been and I know how they come off. Sometimes, well, it's just a super secret plan of God that you don't have the security clearance for and if you did then you would understand, or something like that. I've talked about and heard and I've even shared over the years sometimes that image, it's not a terrible one, of the backside of a rug, maybe you've heard that one too, that on the backside of a rug, all the yarn is cut and it's stray pieces and it looks ugly and it's terrible and you can't make any sense of it and it's not until you turn it around and you see, ah, there's this beautiful pattern there. Okay, kind of, but that doesn't really satisfy.
I've even come to those times in my life and I've been answered either with other people or just in my own self. "Why are you asking this question? Who gives you the right to question God?" Which is just another way of saying, "I'm really uncomfortable with this question, stop asking it."
Because isn't that the real question? Isn't that really the only question that really, really, matters? Why is there so much suffering in this world because if we can't get our hands around that one. the rest of it's pretty relevant. The rest of it makes no sense at all.
I favored immediate gratification responses for a long time for the same reason I favored pop tarts. Because pop tarts are that food that is instant, it is immediate gratification, it is simple, it is satisfying very quickly, and if you look at the box it even says it's fortified with vitamin so it must be good for you, right?
I had pop tart kind of answers for my faith as well until I got to the point where one pop tart after another, one tragedy after another, one grieving family after another, and they weren't that satisfying. In fact, it may be a little queasy. How do you give a quick and simple answer when you're just gutted? How does anything quick and simple help? Something like this.
This is a sculpture that's on Lake Geneva inspired by some parents who lost their child. When I saw this, that seems to summarize for me so much of grief and sorrow and just what a pop tart won't fill.
In fact, after awhile that queasy feeling of giving simple answers, pat answers, somehow you get the sense that maybe that's even part of the problem itself. It's not really helping. It sounds good but it doesn't work and it doesn't get to the real problem. Because it doesn't get to this issue of this way that we view God. It's that, what I've been talking about through these last several weeks and beyond it is the idea that we have this God who is somehow up here and we're down here and God is just passionate and nothing affects God and down here is where we suffer.
When we suffer we call out to God, we try to get God's attention, we try to get God's favor, we try to somehow get God to come and intervene so that God up there will now come down here and solve it for us. I'm telling you, that kind of God can't solve this issue. It just makes it worse. How do we get to justify the absence of God? We're trying to get God's attention and God won't give us the attention or God somehow when we do that then we've even twisted it even further so that if God isn't answering that must be judgment because if God answers and this God somehow comes and helps us, then we praise God and we are blessed.
What does it mean that we pray and it doesn't solve? Does that mean that somehow this is part of the judgment of God? It's been used that way. It's been used that way on some of you. It's been used that way as a way of doubling the suffering because not only are you hurting but now somehow it's implicit that it's your lack of faith or sincerity, that there's something wrong and so we just multiply the suffering. It is enough to make some people just reject God altogether. Many do. In fact, I don't know any issue that causes people to reject faith in God than the issue of suffering. I hear it again and again.
I could go along with and I can figure out the things in the Bible, I could figure out science, but I could not reconcile the suffering of the world with a God of love. Something doesn't add up. There's this part that wants to reject it and there is that part that says that's the end of it. That unravels everything, but it's also the possibility, at least it has been for me, of putting together something different. It's not that I'm rejecting God I'm rejecting the package, the container, in which God has been presented.
Because even though there are passages in the Bible, and there are places in theology that talk about the God who is up there and high and mighty and all those metaphors and all that, there is a whole other set of images that begins in the first chapter of Genesis and weaves its way throughout the entire Bible. It starts with this idea of a God that is embedded in the very nature of the universe. Sometimes it's the metaphor of breaths and it's like that God is as close to you as breath is to you, or that God is a part of the DNA of the universe and the wisdom whether it's through the wisdom passages, whether it comes through the prophets, whether it comes through Jesus, whether it comes through Paul.
Where Paul is talking about the God who is closer to us than we are to ourselves, or the God who is in all and through all. Through the early church, you begin to see this. There's sort of this subterranean narrative of God that gets ignored but once you see it you can't unsee it. It begins to emerge everywhere you go. Even in the later church, in churches like the Celtic church, which is where I first ran across it, it's part of our tradition, it's this idea that God is embedded, entwined, interwoven, into the very fabric of this universe.
It's sort of like this knot, knots are big deal in Celtic theology.
You see him on our cross, you see him on our table. It's a way of saying that we are all interwoven and that the presence of God is not something that you add in on top. It is so interwoven that if you take that out, the whole thing falls apart. It's a part of our essence. If that's a part of who we are, if the divine is woven into the very nature and the essence of our DNA and our soul and who we are. That changes everything. That changes everything, including the way we understand suffering, and where we see God.
God is no longer the God who is way up there. God is right here suffering with us. We begin to understand Jesus crying on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me." It's Jesus' way of identifying with us in such powerful ways. Christ goes to the places where it feel completely God-forsaken so that we never have to worry about if Christ meets us even in the God-forsaken places, where else won't Christ meet us?
Where are we alone if even in the most God-forsaken place, Christ is already waiting for us. It begins to change the way we see suffering. It begins to change the way we see God. Suffering no longer is the judgment of God. It is the place where God draws us close and we become aware of God. It becomes the grounds of a new way of seeing and a new way of living. Suffering comes not because of the judgment of God, but just because suffering comes with life. All living things suffer.
Suffering comes because we're part of a universe that is still open-ended. It is still emerging, it is still creating. Tectonic plates move and clouds roll through and the universe is still shifting. Things will happen. We suffer because we live. We suffer because we love. We suffer because we grieve for one another. That's why we suffer but we never have to worry about as if somehow that put us apart from God. That's the very place where we get to find the participation and the solidarity with God.
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
becomes not the wall between us and God, it becomes the doorway through which we encounter God in new ways. It changes that whole triangle, that whole theodicy because if, in fact,
God is the God who is interwoven with us, and God is a God of love. God suffers with the suffering of the world.
Love is what is all powerful. It doesn't eliminate suffering. It gives meaning to it. It is here. It is here where we encounter God most profoundly, or at least we can.
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" There's a lot of prayers Jesus could have prayed that day. He could have prayed. There's a part of me that wishes He would have just jumped to one chapter, to Psalm 23. That's the one we all love. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." Why didn't Jesus pray that one? I think because that one already speaks of a certain confidence. Now, I can pray Psalm 23 because Jesus prayed Psalm 23. Because Jesus was able to be at that place that is most God-forsaken, I'm able to say, Tthe Lord's my shepherd, I shall not be in want."
Why? Because of what God has already done. This is not the rejection of God. This is not the absence of God. This is not because God wasn't paying attention. This becomes the meeting place of God. I want to finish here around this table. As we join around this table together, because even as there have been different pieces and parts of the Bible that have given me more meaning around this issue of suffering, there's another aspect of it as well. Even as we gather around the symbols of our common faith that have to do with knots and how we are intertwined with one another with the suffering of God on the cross.
Even as we find the same kind of symbols around our table, there is something that not only comforts me but challenges me. I want to offer one last piece about how do we make sense of suffering because I don't think we're done making sense of suffering until suffering begins to make sense of us. Here's what I mean by that. If in fact that God joins us in our suffering, and it is because we are embedded and we are interwoven with God, then is it possible? Is it possible that the suffering that we experience is really a way of embodying the suffering of God?
Is it possible that even as God joins us in our suffering because we are interwoven in our very essence, then that the suffering we experience may be just the way that we embody the suffering of God? That even as God proceeds us to those God-forsaken places, when we come to those places where we groan, and we hurt, and we grieve, is it possible that God is already there. The question is no longer, how do we get God to pay attention down here? "Hey God, do you see what's going on down here?"
Maybe the real issue is this, is that God is saying, "Wake up. Will you wake up to what's going on here because this is where I am. I am with the poor, and I am with the needy, and I am with the suffering. Will you join me here?" Maybe the way that happens is that God wakens us up through suffering. That we become the embodiment of God's suffering. I'm not here to prove that to you, but I am here to hold that up as a real possibility because we see it. We see it not only in the early parts of the Bible but especially in the prophets.
The prophets are the people who become transparent to the suffering of God. They give voice to the suffering of God. They become the fellowship of the feelings of God, it is because they are so open and vulnerable to the anger, and the jealousy, and the rage, and the hurt, and the love, and their compassion of God that they can speak so compassionately. They understood that what they were feeling and what they gave voice to was the very pathos, the very passion of God that was working through them.
We see that, particularly in Jesus. Jesus who was the epitome, the embodiment, the best picture we have of God, and here's Jesus who was weeping for the hurting and the grieving. That Jesus is angry when people aren't caring, and they use God as an excuse not to care. That God is the God who is compassionate, and the God who joins in the God-forsaken places. We see all of that in Christ. That, therefore, our suffering may be the sacrament, the outward sign of the inward connection that we have with God.
That rather than being something we have to fear, rather than being something we have to hide, because that may mean that God isn't with us, or that God has judged us, or that somehow our faith isn't up to snuff. This may be the most spiritual thing at all. That being spiritual, isn't to somehow emulate God that doesn't exist. The God who's on high, who'just passionate, who has no feeling, and will sometimes look down on us if God chooses. Spiritual means to be above it all, but spiritual may mean to be right in the heart of the very causes of suffering itself.
That may be when we are participating there, maybe when our heart is breaking there, we are as close to God as we ever get. It is that ache, it is that suffering of ourselves, that we begin to be the embodiment of God's suffering today. That in each day and in each age, there is something that's breaking God's heart. God invites us to that place to participate with God. We can point back to history and say, yes, we solved that slavery thing. We solved that women thing or we solved something that's breaking God's heart. What is it?
If we can locate that place, we're finding the great invitation of God. That this table, the interwoven is not just to provide comfort in the midst of suffering. That this table becomes the divine protest against the causes of it, and the greatest invitation to be a part of the healing of the world. As we come to the table this day, I'm going to ask you, will you allow the pathos, the passion of God to be embodied in and through you? Will you be the extension of that this week?
Will you be listening? Will you be open? Will you be vulnerable to the needs and the ache in this world and realize that is not a place that is God-forsaken? That is a place where God is trying to be next. That your own pain and your own suffering, may be, may be God's invitation to join God there. Whether it is a tsunami halfway across the world. Whether it is the ache across the dinner table or across the street, but that's the great invitation.
Will you allow the pathos of God, the passion of God to live in you and through you? It isn't the broken things that God works, broken bread, crushed grapes that God gives the word, the good news of God's presence and what God is yet to do. Will you join? Will you encourage? Will you comfort? Will you dignify the suffering of others? In so doing, will you embody the very presence of God? Let's pray.
We have come to see and come to believe though God that somehow when we suffer or if we see others, that is a sign of your absence. Wake us up today. Wake us up to a new reality that suffering may be a very call of your presence. The best clue that we have of who you are, the best clue we have of what you would have us do next. As we come to this table, as we come to the place of brokenness and offer ourselves as well that this world might find its healing, its redemption, its wholeness in you through Christ in whose name we pray. Amen