How To Suffer

I was at mass Monday morning at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Moses Lake, sitting listening to one of the readings for the day when something hit me that I’d never considered before.

This, as an aside, is why scripture should be listened to and not just read. It’s a different experience, this listening, and different meanings come across. It’s how most early Christians got scripture, by listening to it recited.

By listening to the stories told, and the letters read. Out loud. In the assembly.

At any rate, the reading was from the first chapter of Job:

6 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. 7 The Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 8 And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” 9 Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? 10 Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” 12 And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord. (Job 1:6–12 ESV)

He will curse you to your face. Such are the words of Satan, the adversary, to God in the assembly. And it came to me that Job is not so much an intellectual discourse on the meaning of suffering as it a guide, a how to suffer.

Job doesn’t curse God, at least not initially — “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord,” he says (1:21), and then he rebukes his wife later, saying “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (2:10)

Later in the book, he does lament about his hopeless state, he does wonder where God is, even as he confesses his hope in his eventual redemption, he speaks words of despair and hopelessness, and the book ends with no real answer to Job’s suffering, save that God is inscrutable and who are we to question?

Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?

This is, I think (without doing a further study on the whole of the book, which I’m not doing here), a guide, how to think about and live into suffering — earned and unearned. Blessing and curse are both the gift and promise of God. Job speaks as one who had much, and thanks to the ministrations of Satan, has lost everything save for his life.

In this, it is perfectly acceptable to lament. To wail. To groan. To cry out. To wonder what the point of life is, and wouldn’t it have been better had I never been born? Where is God, and why is God silent? To even accuse God, as Job does, of working against what God in his goodness has willed into being.

All of this is acceptable. It is faith.

But Job never gives in to his despair. He never surrenders. He may wish he’d never been born (in this, I am reminded of a young woman who recently told me she wish her neighbor had actually killed her when he pointed a gun at her and threatened to do so), but he persists in living. Even as he breathes death.

That persistence in the face of a harsh, pointless struggle, is what matters here. It is Jacob, wrestling all night, not letting go, fighting so intensely that God has to play dirty to make it stop.

God here plays dirty too. “Who are you to even question me?” God asks Job. It’s a cop out, a lousy answer, one delivered from on high, spoken from impenetrable and unknowable authority. But it’s also true.

The point here, however, is not about God. It’s about us. It’s about tenacity. It’s about living. It’s about grabbing hold and not letting go. Even if nothing makes any sense.

Even if there seems no point, no relief, no salvation, from any of it.

The Gospel

A real question. And a real answer.

Where was [God] when I was being abused? where was he when my daughter was on the streets? Where was he when my family needed him? Where was he when I was raped? WHERE WAS HE!!!?

God was there, with you, bleeding, hurting, cowering in fear, feeling the rage, taking the blows.

With you. Suffering. With you.

That’s where our God is. On the cross. Beaten. Raped. Tortured. Bleeding. Dying.

With us.

For us.

As one of us

[At this point, the person who asked the question was sitting in a Bible study in a women’s shelter, and she was angry at the pastor who said “God is here,” in the shelter, in the group. And he probably meant well. Later, someone else — a young woman who has her suffered her own horrific abuse tried to explain a little more what was happening.]

She was angry because “God is here” as her son is on the streets and her daughter is raped repeatedly and her husband abused her for 10 years and she was just horribly fucked over by life. But God was there. I understand, why would he let that happen to her? Why would God let all her family be raped and sold and murdered and abused and just LET THAT GO.

Where was God when they needed Him??

And where is he now?

This is all I’ve got. Because I don’t know why.

I don’t know why.

I can only weep with you. My tears, my sorrow, my rage — all pointless. Like so much else I do. It’s all I have.

I know there is a cross, bloody, covered in gore, and an empty tomb, a borrowed tomb, someone else’s final resting place, where he was laid. I know he was dead, but he is now alive.

And on days when it seems most pointless, on days like today when I have no hope, when I know all I am is failure and rejection, I know that tomb is empty.

He is risen.

Wounded, broken, but alive, perfect.

For me. For you. For the world that wounded him.

Touch his wounds. The wounds he let us give him. Know he’s real. Know he lives.

It’s a terrible answer. It’s all I have. It’s all the hope there is.


(The person who asked this question has since disappeared.)

SERMON Trinity Sunday

I did not preach this Sunday — well, I did, kind of — and so it looked something like this.

Trinity Sunday (Year C)

  • Proverbs 8:1–31
  • Acts 2:14–36
  • Psalm 8
  • John 8:48–59

48 The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” 49 Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. 50 Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” 52 The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death. ’ 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” 54 Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God. ’ 55 But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. (John 8:48–59 ESV)

This is Trinity Sunday, the day the church has chosen to try and explain the inexplicable. To describe the indescribable. To define the indefinable. And we try any number of ways to explain this inexplicable and deeply irrational thing — that we believe in one God who is actually three separate and distinct persons and yet still only one God.

I’m going to let Athanasius, the fourth-century saint whose lengthy creed we claim as authoritative but otherwise leave mouldering on the shelf only to dust off and confess this day, do the hard work for me:

[W]e worship one God in trinity, and the Trinity is unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.

For the person of the Father is one, that of the Son another, and that of the Holy Spirit still another, but the deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one — equal in glory, coequal in majesty.

What the father is, such is the son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father is uncreated; the Son in uncreated; the Holy Spirit is uncreated. The Father is unlimited; the Son is unlimited; the Holy Spirit is unlimited. The Father is eternal; the Son is eternal; the Holy Spirit is eternal—and yet there are not three eternal beings but one who is eternal, just as there are not three uncreated or unlimited beings, but one who is uncreated and unlimited. In the same way, the Father is almighty; the Son is almighty; the Holy Spirit is almighty—and yet there are not three almighty beings but one who is almighty.

Thus, the Father is God; the Son is god; the Holy Spirit is God—and yet there are not three gods but one God. Thus the Father is Lord; the Son is Lord; the Holy Spirit is Lord—and yet there are not three lords; but one Lord. For just as we are compelled by the Christian truth to confess that each distinct person is God and Lord, so we are forbidden by the catholic religion to say there are three gods or three lords.

The Father was neither made nor created nor begotten by anyone. The Son is from the Father alone, not made or created or begotten. The Holy Spirit is from the Father and the Son, not made or created or begotten but proceeding. Therefore there is one Father, not three fathers; one Son, not three sons; one Holy Spirit, not three holy spirits. And in this Trinity none is before or after, greater or less than another, but all three persons are in themselves coeternal and coequal, so that (as has been stated above) in all things the Trinity in unity and the Unity in trinity must be worshiped. Therefore, who wants to be saved should think thus about the trinity.

Thus we should think about the Trinity. What a mouthful. Small wonder we leave these pages alone for early the entirety of the church year. Recite this, and you’ve taken up a good portion of a typical worship service!

But note what this is. Athanasius is not giving us an explanation. He’s not saying what the trinity is, though he is spending his time telling us what the Trinity isn’t — three fathers and three sons and three spirits, or that the Son emanated from the Father and the Spirit from the Son. He’s also not telling telling us how this is so. He’s confessing the Trinity as a true understanding not just of how we perceive God at work, but who and what God actually is.

In effect, Athanasius is saying this Trinity we worship as one God, undivided and indivisible but somehow three very separate persons, is a mystery we confess rather than understand. Something we experience, rather than explain. Trinity needs no explanation. It is the truth that explains.

In our first reading, we have wisdom — Σοφια in Greek, חָכְמָה in Hebrew — claiming to have been there since before the beginning, before The Lord said “Let there be light!,” separated the waters, and filled the world with green things, creeping things, flying things, and people.

I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man. (Proverbs 8:30–31 ESV)

From the beginning, this Spirit was with God, rejoicing and celebrating in the work of creation, in all the things and creatures God created.

This Spirit is God, is with us still, blows through this world like the breath God gives to all that lives, delighting in us, celebrating with God in the goodness of even a fallen creation. In the children of men, evil and sinful though we can be.

And in our Gospel reading, Jesus tells a group of Judeans after a long and drawn out discussion about light and truth and doing the work and being one with the father, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” The Judeans — Jews is most translations, it’s the same word in Greek — are already angry at Jesus. He’s not one of them, he’s challenged some of their most cherished assumptions — particularly the faith that their patrimony, their heritage, their ties to their ancestor Abraham — will somehow save them, or privilege them before God.

But Jesus will have none of it. Whoever keeps his word will never taste death, Jesus says. He glorifies only the Father, and does only what the Father commands and empowers him to do. And he confesses, “Before Abraham was, I am.”

In the present tense. Like Sophia, there at the beginning, being the Word through which the creation was spoken into being. Being the light that came into the world.

There’s something very strange, however, about the Son we meet in our gospel reading today.

A little further on in his very lengthy creed, Athanasius writes of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ:

Although he is god and a human being, nevertheless he is not two but one Christ. However, he is not one by the changing of the divinity in the flesh but by the taking up of the humanity in God. Indeed, he is not one by a confusion of substance but by a unity of person. For, as the rational soul and the flesh are one human being, so God and the human being are one Christ.

Christ is human, God wrapped in flesh. One of us, lifting our humanity up.

This chapter of John begins with a woman caught in the act of adultery being brought to Jesus and asked his opinion on what should be done. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” he says to the Pharisees who presented her. They slink away, and Jesus pardons the woman, telling her, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

He could save her from the wrath of those who would impose the law.

The chapter ends with Jesus hiding as many of those same Pharisees pick up stones to hurl at him. Because he claimed to be older than Abraham.

He could not save himself.

This God in flesh, who was there before the beginning, who was the word through which the cosmos was breathed into being, who with wisdom rejoiced in the creation of the world, could save a woman from the frightful consequences of the law. Could pose the question that disarmed all her accusers.

But he could not save himself.

This God almighty has to slink and hide and cower while angry religious leaders with stones in their hands search for him, seeking his death.

He can save us. But he cannot save himself.

This is what it means to confess a Triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit, in which the Son is incarnate in our midst, in flesh as one of us, fully God and fully man. When you meet Christ, a cowering Christ fleeing those who will kill him, you meet God. When you meet Christ, betrayed and humiliated and tortured and crucified and helpless to save himself, you meet God.

Conversely, because it is our humanity that has been elevated, when you meet a person treated this way, to meet this kind of suffering, to meet betrayal and humiliation and torture and helplessness and death, you meet God. When you meet a person cowering in fear, seeking safety, running from those who hands claw and grasp, or who clutch tightly stones of judgment and condemnation, you meet God.

Not in glory. Not in strength. Not in wealth. Not in comfort. Not in greatness. Not in purity or position or privilege or power.

But condemned, in suffering, sorrow, fear, pain, death. This is where God is.

This is who God is.

This is what it means, these dusty old words of St. Athanasius, words we don’t like to say or even much think about. When we confess God as Trinity, we confess our faith and trust in a God who takes so much joy in the creation that he became enfleshed in it, shared our uncertain and difficult lives, suffered with us, and suffered at our hands, dying a deeply unjust death so that we who trust and follow may have eternal life.

He created the world, breathed it all into being. But he cannot save himself.

That, sisters and brothers, is what it means to confess God as Trinity.

Good Friday 2016

44 It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45 while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. 47 Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” 48 And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. 49 And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things. (Luke 23:44–49 ESV)

Pilate, beholding a living breathing Christ, found no guilt him. The thief, sharing The Skull with Jesus and dying on a another cross beside him, knew Jesus had done nothing wrong.

But it is in Jesus’ death that the centurion fully beheld the nature of the man dying — “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Ὄντως ὁ ἄνθρωπος οὗτος δίκαιος ἦν)

And he praises God.

A believer. A gentile believer, present, there, at the foot of the cross, witnessing the whole sorry spectacle.

What kind of death is it that a man can die and demonstrate his innocence? I don’t know. The centurion was likely well-acquainted with death, having doled out a lot of it himself in his life. He’d seen men (and women) die in all sorts of circumstances. They were familiar, the ways of death, how men died, and something about this death — this execution — was different. Different enough to bear witness to the innocence of the one dying.

Different enough to cause a man to believe. To praise God.

Jesus was different. Because he was truly innocent. Innocent in ways we are not.

We are the thieves hanging beside Christ, getting our due reward. We either know that, and beg forgiveness, or we rage against the apparent impotence of God. “Save yourself! SAVE US!!”

I both like this understanding and I hate it. Christians, especially since the Enlightenment, struggle mightily with the morality and meaning of suffering. Especially innocent suffering, the suffering of children, suffering undeserved. Often, we require our victims, in order to be proper victims, to be pure and blameless, to lead simple lives untainted by sin, to have contributed nothing to their own situation. And somehow, if they have, if they are sinners, well, they have brought their suffering down upon themselves.

This isn’t idle speculation. I deal with young people every day who try to make sense of the evil, the brutality, the violence they have lived (and sadly, are living) through, and sense in their bodies and their souls they somehow came to deserve it because … because why? And where was God in the dark and terrifying places where they were all alone with the people who abused them? What does it mean to suffer, and suffer virtuously, and be innocent and undeserving of one’s suffering?

As Christians, we confess our sinfulness. Our lack of innocence. We confess it. We believe it. We know it to be true.

Because Christ was innocent in ways we are not. Ways even children are not. Without sin in ways we cannot be. He responded to our fear, rejection, and violence with love, not despair or anger. His wounds bear witness to his love for us, and not our hatred toward him.

Jesus died the death of an innocent man — a death we can be part of, a death he willingly shares with us. A death we cannot die on our own.

LENT Bent and Crooked and Glorious

1 May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble!
May the name of the God of Jacob protect you!
2 May he send you help from the sanctuary
and give you support from Zion!
3 May he remember all your offerings
and regard with favor your burnt sacrifices!
Selah
4 May he grant you your heart’s desire
and fulfill all your plans!
5 May we shout for joy over your salvation,
and in the name of our God set up our banners!
May the Lord fulfill all your petitions
(Psalms 20:1-5 ESV)

What do you do when you know no one wants you? When you know no one loves you?

In my book, The Love That Matters: Meeting Jesus in the Midst of Terror and Death (which you should all buy and read if you haven’t yet), I talked a little about what it felt like to be almost completely abandoned and unwanted in the world:

At seventeen, I had three great questions of the world. Would anyone ever want me? Would anyone ever love me? Would I belong anywhere? I had no idea what the answers to those questions would be. I had the vague hope, thanks to that voice I had heard in the fifth grade, that there was a “yes” out there. somewhere. But really, I had no idea where I was going. Or how to get there.

It would be fair to say that over 30 years later, I still feel some of this. I’ve been rejected — twice — for ordination by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which didn’t quite toss me out the door and then scream, “and stay out!”, but came pretty close. I’ve not managed to find work I can, in good conscience, do for any great length of time. (My sojourn in corporate America is teaching me things I’d rather not know.) The fact that I don’t seem fit for life in the modern world is only ameliorated by the fact that my marriage to Jennifer is as a solid a rock as I can ever stand on — we love each other without condition — and that there are churches out there, where I’ve preached and presided and simply been, that would call me if they could, if they had the money or if they were allowed to.

And there are these kids, these beautiful kids broken and wounded by violence and neglect and unlove. To hear their despair is to live mine again, but knowing now what I wish I could have known at 17 — there is love, and belonging, and purpose, and even meaning. Less than I wanted, but far more than I imagined.

It’s not much. I’m almost 50, and I’ve not really found a place of my own. The world only sort of works for me. But I have found some people. And they have found me. And we belong to each other.

So, is this what it means for the Lord to answer me in the day of trouble? To reach out from his resting place in his shattered and broken house and help me? Is the sacrifice that is my life — sometimes a simple offering and sometimes set alight on the altar — acceptable?

And my heart’s desire? And my plans? I wanted to be famous. To be well-off. I wanted people to listen to me, to regard me, to respect me, to appreciate me. I wanted to play songs for adoring crowds and speak words of wisdom to rapt audiences.

I have had a little of that.

But my heart’s desire is still … to be wanted, to be loved, to find a place of belonging. And I have. In Jennifer. In my kids. It is not what I wanted or imagined or hoped or prayed for. But there is adoration, regard, and rapt attention. There is love — more than I could ever imagine.

Prayers unspoken, yet answered. Desires and plans fulfilled. After a fashion. After a bent and crooked and glorious fashion.

So, I shall shout for joy that the Lord has been good. He has given me all I have asked for and more. That there is love without end in a world so good and skilled at being brutal and indifferent. I ask now for these things for those I care for, the young people who have come to me not knowing, as I didn’t know, what would come. Seeing in me something of hope, and love, and acceptance, yet still wondering if sorrow and suffering would be all there is. Fearing it would be. And wanting no more of it.

LENT Sending to Babylon

11 I, I am the Lord,
and besides me there is no savior.
12 I declared and saved and proclaimed,
when there was no strange god among you;
and you are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and I am God.
13 Also henceforth I am he;
there is none who can deliver from my hand;
I work, and who can turn it back?”
14 Thus says the Lord,
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
“For your sake I send to Babylon
and bring them all down as fugitives,
even the Chaldeans, in the ships in which they rejoice.
15 I am the Lord, your Holy One,
the Creator of Israel, your King.
(Isaiah 43:11-15 ESV)

What goes around, comes around. And as you sow, so shall you reap. My mother told me once she believes these things — that those who do evil in the world are eventually repaid their evil. A kind-of karma, if you will, that evens the world out, and make the world morally comprehensible.

I don’t believe these things. I haven’t since I was in the Army in Panama, where all sorts of shady and illegal and dangerous things were done by people in power, things that put a lot of people — a lot of soldiers — at risk. Of course, I was primed not to believe in anything resembling karma or just desserts or the coming around of things that go because too many people who have hurt me, who took joy in it and for whom it seemed their purpose, prospered, and probably slept happily, their dreams untroubled by my sorrow and my nightmares.

The same is true, sadly, today. People can hurt me, and they do, and nothing comes of it. They pay no price, suffer no consequences, feel no pangs of sorrow or conscience, lose no sleep. They are not caught and lectured or reprimanded or punished. Indeed, they are probably given medals and told, “Keep up the good work!” Dealing with me is probably akin to a burp or a sneeze, a minor inconvenience to be forgotten as soon as the moment passes.

No, what goes around most definitely does not come around.

God here is delivering Israel from exile. Raising Israel up from the living death that is their sorrow and mourning along the banks of the Tigris. God used Babylon to bring Israel low, the means of God’s wrath upon his faithless and idolatrous people. In the armies of Nebuchadnezzar is all the wrath and rage of God at a people who long before stopped being the grateful and humble recipients of God’s grace.

This is, however, only a temporary privilege, and Babylon too will pay the price for the destruction it has wrought, for carrying Israel into an exile where it could taunt and demand the Israelites sing them songs. Babylon itself faces conquest. And exile. Babylon faces judgment at the hands of the very instruments it once gloried in — armies, strength, power.

But is this what goes around comes around?

There are days I wish God would bring low some of those who have so harshly judged me. Who have cast me out, who have taunted and tormented and abused me. I’m not sure I want their suffering — I am too tenderhearted and kind for that — but I do want to know that somehow I matter enough to God that some kind of vengeance, some kind of price, is paid by a people willing to cast me out, to treat me as someone of no value. I don’t know if I would take joy in seeing that. But I want to know that I matter enough to God, to be worth the kind of recompense that looks like what goes around comes around.

Mostly I just want the casting out undone, though I know it can’t be and it won’t be. I am in exile. On the banks of the river. With a song of sorrow in my heart. Waiting for God’s deliverance. Waiting…

SERMON Blessed is He…

Sunday, I preached at First Reformed Church in Chatham, New York, where I am preaching next week too. This is what I preached, more or less.

Second Sunday of Lent (Year C)

  • Genesis 15:1-18
  • Psalm 27
  • Philippians 3:17–4:1
  • Luke 13:31-35

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. 33 Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem. ’ 34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Luke 13:31-35 ESV)

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

We’re going to hear those words in a few weeks, on Palm Sunday, on the day Jesus rides into Jerusalem hailed as a conquering hero and a delivering king.

Today, though, we hear them slightly differently. In a lament and warning. This is, after all, the season of Lent, of solemn introspection, of walking with Jesus as he works his way to Jerusalem, knowing exactly what is coming — triumph follower by betrayal and death.

In fact, our reading today begins with a warning. King Herod wants to kill you, some Jewish religious leaders tell Jesus. Flee, get away from here. Save yourself. Maybe they are fans of his work — after all, Jesus is doing great things. And they want to see him continue, want to see him succeed, whatever that means to them. So go, run away, far away, and keep doing what you are doing. Because otherwise, King Herod is going to put an end to it.

And Jesus … Jesus tells the Pharisees what he is doing, today and tomorrow, and on the day after — on the third day — he is finished. But that doesn’t matter, because Jesus must do this work, must go on his way, must make his way to Jerusalem, to the seat of Herod’s power, to the House of God, and must suffer the fate of so many prophets before him.

I don’t know if Lent is a big deal here. It is in many of the Lutheran churches I have worshiped and served at. We take seriously this matter of Christ’s suffering and his journey to death. It’s a big deal for us Lutherans, and our hymnal is a much more … somber book because of it. There’s not a lot of overlap between your hymnal and that published by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

But as Christians, as followers of Jesus, we are a people who take suffering and death seriously. Suffering is not a puzzle to be solved, an inconvenience we seek to overcome, a moral failing that forever stains the one who suffers and makes them less than fully human or less than completely a beloved child of God. Suffering is an inescapable part of the human condition, a huge part of Israel’s story as the people of God dealt with their failure to be the people of God. Israel suffers for its sin and faithlessness, yes — by living under foreign rule, by facing war and famine and conquest and exile. All of these things God promised Moses in the wilderness and they came to pass.

Because Israel forgot who it was, and forgot who had called it into being.

Over time, in scripture, as God deals with this wayward people, God grows closer to them, does more of the work, promises to meet them and redeem them in their poverty, their misery, and their exile.

Until God becomes one of them. One of the people of the promise given to Abraham — descendants greater than the stars in the sky, a land of your own, and a blessing to the entire world. God joins them, in their conquest, in their exile, as they face a brutal occupying army that knows no kindness and no mercy. And a puppet king in Herod, who rules Israel not for the benefit of the people he reigns over, nor for the benefit of the God who called them into being, but for the Romans — outsiders, foreigners — who hold what appears to everyone as real power. Tangible and brutal power.

This is the world God joins us in. He meets the suffering of his people and he heals sickness and casts out demons. Jesus raises the dead, feed multitudes, and proclaims the coming kingdom of God. And he is slowly empowering his disciples — us — to do the same.

But if we’re tempted to think this is a glorious task that grants us power and privilege, Jesus reminds us of something important — Jerusalem is an occupied city, a city inhospitable to prophets like Jesus who come to hold the leaders of Israel, the shepherds of Israel, accountable. A prophet doesn’t just warn of the coming consequences of God’s judgment upon his faithless people, but he also speaks words of redemption. Judgement is never God’s last word on human sinfulness — redemption and resurrection are. And that is always the case, at least until the coming Day of Judgement.

There is no glory in this calling. Not in the crushing adoration of the crowds that follow Jesus everywhere. Not in the confused response of the disciples who cannot seem to keep up with Jesus. Not in the demons cast out who proclaim what no human seems able to confess, that Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary, is the Son of God. This is a doomed enterprise, and it has been doomed from the start. It will end in betrayal and arrest, in torture and death. With followers who were once eager to accompany Jesus into death scattered and frightened. And very much alive.

This, my sisters and brothers, is our journey in Lent. This is why we have this season, why we take this journey, why we have a church year. To remember all of the story. Not just the promise of resurrection glory, not just to teach ourselves God’s instructions for faithfully living together given through Moses and the Apostle Paul. To remember Jesus came, struggled, wept over this city he could not and would not save from siege and destruction, and in anticipation of the things to come, he gave in to the betrayal of God’s people and death at the hands of the Romans.

We are making our way to that Cross. There is no escaping it. And sisters and brothers, the Cross of Christ is what the true Glory of God looks like.

It’s hard to think of God’s glory as betrayed and broken, as tortured and beaten, but there it is. Raised high. For all humanity to see.

Now, we Lutherans aren’t completely given over to gloom. We know an empty tomb when we look into it. We know a resurrected savior when we meet him on the road. Well, actually, we don’t, but neither do you. No one does until he breaks bread with us. But we know how to celebrate, how to proclaim “He is risen!”

However, we are not there yet. We are walking, breathlessly, tired, confused, and not sure entirely what happens next, with Jesus as he works his way to Jerusalem, working miracles and teaching wondrous things along the way.

We are the brood under his wings. We are the sheep his fold. And right now, we are with him, moving, never stopping, always in motion. Going his way, to the fate that awaits him. That awaits us.

Death. Resurrection. Ascension. Glory in blood. And tears. And the iron of nails, the hemp of ropes, the painful prick of thorns, the sharp tip of a spear. Glory in an empty tomb, in a wadded up and crumpled burial shroud. Glory in broken bread and a shared cup of wine.

Glory. All of it.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

SERMON Not All There is to the Glory of God

I did not preach this last weekend, but if I had, it would have gone something like this.

Transfiguration Sunday (Year C)

  • Exodus 34:29-35
  • Psalm 99
  • 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:2
  • Luke 9:28-43

28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”— not knowing what he said. 34 As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” 36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.

37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38 And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. 39 And behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly cries out. It convulses him so that he foams at the mouth, and shatters him, and will hardly leave him. 40 And I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41 Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.”42 While he was coming, the demon threw him to the ground and convulsed him. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43 And all were astonished at the majesty of God. (Luke 9:28-43 ESV)

And they kept silent and told no one in those days.

You’d think the disciples would have told the whole wide world who and what Jesus was, especially given that the entire light of heaven shined upon him, that God has — again — formally and very publicly adopted him. Proclaimed Jesus the Chosen One, the one at lease the disciples should listen to.

Here, after all, on this mountain, eight days after asking his followers who the crowds thought he was, who they thought he was, and then telling those same disciples about his coming fate — “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” — Jesus has again gone to pray alone. And again, he has been followed by his closest disciples.

But instead of Jesus telling them what is to come, God shows them. Instead of Jesus questioning his disciples, “who do you think I am?”, God shows them. In a brilliant, overwhelming flash of light. “This is my son, the one I have chosen, listen to him.” And where Moses and Elijah — the giver of the law of the prophet of Israel who showed all of us how to live faithfully in the face of our own faithlessness, who showed the enemies of God’s people “that there is a God in Israel” by healing them rather than striking them down — stood, there is just Jesus. Alone.

And they — the disciples — kept silent, and told no one in those days.

We remember the Jesus of the Great Commission in Matthew, who goes and tells his disciples to preach, and teach, and baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. We remember the Holy Spirit setting a crowd on fire, we remember public testimonies and mass baptisms and crowds following. None of this was accomplished by silence.

But Jesus, at times, commanded silence. When Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed One of the God, Jesus sternly commands them to tell no one. Early in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus heals a leper, and commands him — tell no one. Go make the offering to the priest, he says, but tell no one.

It didn’t help. The fame of Jesus — as a healer, as someone who could command and cast out demons, and as a man who could a feast miraculously appear from a few loaves and fishes — spread far and wide. This was the kingdom, and this drew the crowds.

Even in his own day, no one kept silent about Jesus.

But Jesus is reminding his disciples, and reminding us, there is more to glory of God then a brilliant white light, than the power to cast out of demons and make the sick and the broken whole. I’m not denying this is the glory, the grace, and the love of God at work in the world. But it isn’t all there is.

There is suffering. There is weakness. There is helplessness. There is pain. There is despair, and loss, and loneliness, and isolation. There is fear. And there is death.

These things too are the glory of God. It’s hard for us to see God in suffering. It is hard for us to understand God in fear. And it is nearly impossible, I think, for us to really grasp the presence of God in death.

We want the 5,000 fed, and we want to see it and do it every day. We want the demons cast out into the swine heard, where they drown themselves. We want the power to make the world right. We want to get even, see our enemies underneath our feet, take some pleasure in their fear, in their suffering, in their defeat. We want the power and glory of God from on high to make us strong, mighty, rich, in charge. We want to be great, whether it is for the first ever or simply great again.

But that is not all there is to the glory of God.

Jesus told his disciples, tells us, that he will suffer many things, and that he will die. This is what it means for him to be Χριστος, Christ, the Anointed One of God. Today we may see glory, and tomorrow we may tell of it, but right now, we understand — sometimes silence is better. Because sometimes we don’t understand everything.

We haven’t seen all of God at work. We haven’t held God dying, ministered to a lonely and frightened God, or just been with and cared for a God who languishes unloved and unwanted in prison or on the streets or in a foster home without any real family. Because there too is the glory of God.

Because Jesus also tells Peter, as he commands silence, that the Son of Man will be raised on the third day. But to be raised from the dead, he must die first. We must kill him. And so there he is, the beloved Son, the Chosen One, lifted high upon a cross, a God who suffers torture and death to show us — to show the whole world — that death has no power and no hold over us, and is no real end.

Resurrected life, eternal life, out of death. The promise and the glory of God.

We do not keep silent about this, about an empty tomb, about the Beloved Son claimed and loved and given to the world. But too often we are silent about the suffering God — and the very human suffering he became a part of — because we see no glory and no power and no good end in any of it. And we want no part of it.

But the glory of God is right there. In front us us. To behold.

So, do not be silent. Do not be silent about the wondrous deeds of power, of healing, feeding, and casting out demons. Tell the world what you have seen. Remember, however, the cross, and the God who suffers with us. That too is a wondrous deed. And that too is the glory of God.

 

Suffering and The Meaning of Life

Ralph Wood over at Touchstone has some things to say about how Westerners and moderns — people of the rational enlightenment (this includes a lot of Christians) — think about how to live as he considers a couple of books on Dostoyevsky.

Ivan [Karimazov] is the Dostoevskian character who most fully embodies the soul-rending doubts that have become endemic to modern life. Citing the work of Isaiah Berlin, Cicovacki shows that Ivan is wracked by the three most devastating Enlightenment “humiliations” of Christian tradition: (1) the denial that man is the purpose and center of creation; (2) the insistence that man is but a creature of nature like all other animals; and (3) the discovery that reason is not autonomous and objective but subject to overt passions and covert illusions that radically distort its judgments.

Overly simply stated, Cicovacki’s argument is that Dostoevsky does not give typically Western answers to these questions. On the contrary, Dostoevsky is an anti-rationalist who insists, with Alyosha, that it is not only unnecessary but actually impossible to know the meaning of life as a condition for affirming it. In this rather existentialist reading of Dostoevsky, the great Russian is seen as providing a helpfully Eastern vision of life over against a more Western outlook.

At the center of this essay is what it means to live amidst suffering.

Though his argument is too subtle and complex for brief treatment, Professor Cicovacki argues that Dostoevsky refuses any such constriction of human life. Its troublesome breadth and incomprehensible variety are the source of its sustaining and invigorating vitality. Ivan Karamazov ends in cruelty and madness because he will not embrace such a harsh and contradictory world. He demands to understand why the universe is full of purposeless suffering before he will embrace it.

The emphasis here is mine.

We moderns seek understanding because, in the end, we seek control. One of the promises of modernity — perhaps its penultimate promise (the ultimate promise being complete rational control over all of creation, including humanity)– is an end to suffering, and thus, modernity finds no meaning in suffering itself except its end.

Yet this very question — why is the universe full of purposeless suffering? — has no answer. Not no discernible answer, nor no easy answer, but no answer at all. (Scripture toys with the question, and doesn’t really answer it either, save to say, who are you, squishy humans, to even ask?) I have come to accept this as simply a condition of existence, which I think is tremendously freeing. For the modern, to strive against fear, uncertainty, and suffering is to strive to impose an order upon the world that the world itself cannot bear. It is to work and to worry for something that simply cannot be achieved.

This is not an academic question. I do ministry with and for some profoundly wounded young people — abused and neglected kids — who have experienced some of the most horrible things human beings are capable of doing to each other. All have struggled with meaning and purpose in their lives, especially in the face of brutality, cruelty, neglect, and abandonment. “What is my life for? Is this pain all I will ever know?” God knows I don’t ever want to see a child (or anyone else) kidnapped and raped, or traded and used for pleasure and profit, or abandoned in the middle of nowhere, but we live in a world in which these things happen. And will continue to happen.

There’s a sense I have that trying to remake the world so that bad things don’t happen — because the world is full of people trying to reorder it in various and sundry ways — risks making the world fundamentally inhuman. There is an extent to which modernity — in all its forms — seeks the abolition of humanity, and its replacement with people made for the machine, the process, the procedure, the market, the ideology. When I talk about a church in exile living radically unideological lives, this is what I’m getting at. We seek the human — and thus the divine — first. We seek to meet the messy human chaos — the messy divine presence in the world — in someone, rather than attempting to fit or mold them to some grand vision of the good order of the world.

But mostly it means we embrace life, and all the awfulness it has to offer, even its moral incoherence and seeming purposelessness. Because it is life. Because God so loves the world.

I was asked this week by a young person, “what is the point of it?” Of life, and specifically her life. (Though when I told her about my life, and all that has happened to me, she wasn’t entirely inspired.) And I also told her:

What’s it about? Love. God loves you. That’s an invitation to love God, and then to love the world. Not a happy, loving world. But a violent, miserable one. It makes no sense. It feels wrong sometimes. But it is true.

That’s as good a summation of my faith, of the truth of life — and what I hope to lead others into — as I can possibly make.

Wood deals a bit with Christ in Dostoyevsky, about what catching the “gospel” really means:

This transcendent order is immensely complex and often discomforting. Dostoevsky’s Christ does not merely confirm and re-establish the world’s best impulses. He introduces radically new possibilities and realities. He interrupts closed systems of thinking and destructive ways of desiring. He refuses to leave us alone in our joylessness and lovelessness. Yet he never coerces. For then he would become just another force of nature, and the Church would be just another product of culture.

But such a life entails no promise of happiness or security. There is no guarantee that the world will be healed or that we ourselves shall be spared immense suffering. On the contrary, to be immersed in the viscous reality of the world by making choices and reaping their consequences is inevitably to be burdened by both hurt and guilt.

If this is good news you can bear, then bear it. Bear it gladly.

(H/T to Rod Dreher.)

Jesus Can Take It

Recently, I had a conversation with a pastor about a possible pastoral position in a small, urban church looking to do mission outreach. There was a lot to like about the prospect, but my conversation with them also convinced me to stop looking for ministry calls, or at least stop answering church adverts.

Mostly, I have learned that the churches placing adverts on indeed.com (or elsewhere) are likely to be much more theologically and doctrinally conservative than I am. And I’m okay with that. A number of them are Baptist in orientation, which is a church culture I’m not familiar with (and I know how important culture is to how we do church, and to doing it successfully, or failing at it miserably), and so it’s just as well they have warned me off. I’m much more “catholic” in my understanding both of church and worship. All of these are importance concerns, and ones I cannot fault anyone about.

But the pastor also expressed some concerns about this short blog entry I posted some time ago (caution, the language and sentiment is pretty foul):

Hello all. I have an essay mostly completed that I started Saturday. But it is not finished, and I just don’t feel like finishing it right now. I just noticed someone who started seminary after me got approved, called, ordained, and has just bought a house. Yet another person moved along smoothly and happily in the process.

And here I am — unemployed, impoverished, and nigh near homeless.

I blame Jesus. Truly. I hate Jesus right now. I hate the fact that Jesus called me to follow him, gave me no real choice, set me in the midst of insular, skittish, easily frightened people who did not know what to do with me and judged me harshly — who condemned me — for it. I don’t want to follow Jesus anymore. I hate Jesus. I hate this call. I hate the gospel. I almost think the gospel itself is a lie. And if not a lie, at least a great cosmic joke, a way for God to get a good giggle at the expense of pathetic losers like me. “Ha! I’ll say you’re forgiven but I’ll also make it clear that being forgiven doesn’t really matter because no one will treat you like it!”

And clearly, no one who really matters can be bothered showing me anything remotely resembling grace.

I wish I could be done with all of this. I wish — I really, really, really wish Jesus would just stay the fuck dead. And leave me fuck alone.

I can understand why someone might have a concern about what I write here. It’s harsh, especially in our Jesus-loving culture, to say something like “I hate Jesus.” That’s a statement of disbelief, or it begins a diatribe on why God doesn’t exist.

But at the same time, I do not understand why anyone would have a concern over that. Essentially, the pastor said such a sentiment suggested — especially if read all by itself, without looking at anything else I’ve ever written — I was not ready for a position of leadership.

And that … THAT I don’t understand.

Life is hard. Unpleasant. Sometimes unending suffering and misery. Frequently, our lives feel pointless, empty, and without meaning. Eventually, we all die, some of us slowly and painfully. We have to, as pastors, as followers of the crucified and risen Jesus, be able to look into the face of the suffering of the world, of its misery, its violence, its seeming inherent meaninglessness, and hold out hope. Not platitutdes, but real hope.

A couple of examples. I have been doing an online ministry with teenagers — it began by responding to posts on an app called Whisper — that has allowed me to walk with and be present for some amazing but incredibly troubled young people.

One young woman, just barely a teenager, had been regularly and repeatedly abused by a foster family. After escaping from that situation, she was abducted and held captive for a little more than 48 hours before being found by the police and freed. (It is, of course, a great deal more complex than this, but I don’t want to reveal too much.) I have gotten to know this young woman a bit, and she has a remarkable faith. But after being freed, even she asked:

Why didn’t God protect me?

Now, I was able to engage her in a bit of ocnversation, because I knew she had a faith. I don’t know why God didn’t keep you safe from harm, I said, but Jesus was there, suffering with you. Because that’s what Jesus does — he suffers with us. She eventually did decide that God did protect her, that God was there, with her. And that was good.

Another young woman, not yet 18, who has been the recipient of much violence and abuse in her life, just lost her baby, who had gotten sick with pneumonia and was in the hospital. The conversation that night was a stream of broken hearts and crying, of wailing and the metaphorical ripping of clothes, of profanity and pain and hopelessness. This young woman does not believe, and when I asked if I could pray, she wailed:

THERE IS NO GOD!

And I wasn’t going to argue with her. I was going to sit, in silence, with her, holding her sorrow and her anger and her despair. Because silence sometimes is all we have. And silence, sometimes, is all we need.

I’ve been told a lot, mainly by people who have been wounded by the church, that I have a very grown up faith. I do not seek answers, meaning, or even much solace in biblical platitudes. Yes, God has got it, and I have a future, and the Lord knows his plans for me and my life, knew me even before I was born, and Jesus is the truth and the truth has set me free.

But I also know we live in a world of real pain, of real sorrow, of real doubt, of real, gripping, life-numbing despair. “My God, My God, why have you foresaken me!” Jesus says from the cross, feeling that very human sense of despair and abandonment, a feeling that must be real or the whole crucifixion, including Jesus’ death, is all an absurd game is which nothing is really risked and therefore nothing is really gained.

He had to wonder whether God would really raise him, he had to not know how it would end, he had live with the fear that maybe death really is the final answer we think it is. Jesus, on some very important and very real level, had to not know.

Like we don’t know.

So, okay, maybe I’m not leadership material if church leaders need to have happy faces, perfect faith, and all the answers. If the expectation someone will look to me to see if life is going to be okay, well, my life isn’t quite the best example of God materially blessing one’s faithfulness. I wouldn’t, at 48, be sleeping on a mattress on a floor in someone else’s apartment if God really did materially bless everyone’s faithfulness. I’d really and truly be the failure I’m sometimes convinced I am.

I have found, however, that too many pastors do not know what to do with such despair, such pain, such suffering, and even such hopelessness. (Mostly from personal experience, sad to say.) This is what the happy face gets us — clergy who cannot handle the suffering of the world, who retreat to the nonsense of piety and lectures on doctrine because they cannot look upon that suffering without flinching.

Without doubting.

I have never doubted. Even the words of that blog entry — I wish Jesus would stay dead — betrays my real understanding. Because I know he isn’t. Because I do trust in the resurrection of Christ. That’s my hope. It is the only hope I know is true. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. I know this to be true. And whatever happens to me in life, I know that Jesus rose from the dead, and in him, I shall rise too. We are already dead, and therefore, already risen to new life. I know I’m part of that, in baptism, in my call to follow and feed sheep.

Even if that leads me … well, nowhere.

That feeding sometimes includes letting people know faith is tough, painful, and in this world, sometimes doesn’t end well. But Jesus can take our anger, our pain, our rage, even our lack of faith. As Shusako Endo wrote in his novel Silence, about Christians in Japan, when a Portuguese priest refuses to walk upon an icon of Christ, Jesus tells the priest:

“Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”

Jesus can take it. Which means we can too.