Meeting Jesus in the Mud

A Sermon for Sunday March 26, 2017 (The Fourth Sunday of Lent) John 9:1-17 and 24-41

One of God’s greatest gifts is…mud. Glorious, messy mud.

For many children, playing in the mud provides endless enjoyment.

Mud pies to serve at a party with friends—each delicacy decorated with pebbles, twigs and flower petals.

Mud puddles to stomp and splash in after a good thunderstorm—brand new rain boots spattered with artful gray streaks.

Mud creeks to explore for signs of tadpoles, minnows and crawfish—squishy clumps wedged between the toes in that cool water.

Teens relish moments romping in the mud too.

I have a fond memory from seven years ago when the high school youth from this church did mission work in Houma, La in July. Nearly every day there was an afternoon downpour.

By the middle of the week, there had been so much rain that a pool of water, a couple of inches deep nearly 30 feet in length had formed on our lodging site—a muddy oasis that had to be experienced by a group of teens who had worked hard all day doing construction work. They spent more than an hour running and sliding through the giant puddle, giggling and shouting the entire time.

Did you ever have those exhilarating experiences growing up? Do you remember what it was like to play in the mud as a kid and the unbridled fun you had?

Of course, there are also plenty of adults who don’t mind playing and working in the mud. On mission trips to Honduras, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic or even a couple hours away in the Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s impossible to avoid getting filthy.

         After a long day of digging holes, carrying rocks, pouring concrete, laying bricks, building homes, adults—caked in a muddy mixture of dirt, cement and sweat—wear their grime as badges of honor.  I’ve seen many adults tease each other over who has worked the hardest by the amount of mud they have on their clothes.

There is something exhilarating and satisfying when we are covered in God’s earth, isn’t there?

In the book Dangerous Wonder, author Michael Yaconeli recounts how a friend did a one-man show on Jesus’ life in which he imagined Jesus and the disciples taking a break in the Jordan River after many days of travel and doing ministry. The scene plays out like this:

Jesus and the disciples were all in the river taking baths when the beloved   disciple,  John, reaches down to the floor of the river and brings up a huge mud pie. Preoccupied with their washing, none of the disciples notices. John takes careful aim at his favorite target, Peter. SPLAT! The mud pie strikes Peter in the face. John immediately ducks underwater as though he is scrubbing.

Peter reaches for his own mud pie, takes careful aim at Matthew and lets it fly. WHAM! James wastes no time responding with his own mud pie, and soon bedlam breaks out amongst the disciples. A full-fledged mud fight is under way.

 Philip and Bartholomew sneak up on Judas, whom they didn’t particularly like anyway, and nail him with two mud pies.

 Simon the Zealot…lets loose with a huge mud pie. John ducks and the mud missile hits Jesus right in the middle of his forehead. All the disciples freeze. After a long silence Thomas leans over to Simon and says, “You idiot! You just hit the Son of God with a mud pie…He’ll turn us into turtles!”

 Jesus gazes slowly at each of the disciples, each one fearing the worst.

With a knowing smile, Jesus stops when he sees Simon, who refuses to look Jesus in the eyes. Jesus reaches down into the mud and comes up with a very large mud pie and—BAM!—Simon is hit squarely on the top of his head, and as the mud slithers down his face, everyone, including Jesus, breaks into laughter.

During Jesus’ day, mud was a treasured substance that had many practical and enjoyable applications for daily living.

Mud was the prime building material people used to make things—jars, pots, plates, tools, ovens, art, tablets, roads, homes and other structures. Additionally, it was used to heal wounds on the skin or give relief to aching muscles, i.e. the mud facial and mud bath.

Now, as far as anyone knows, mud was not considered a cure for a more serious infliction like blindness.  But that doesn’t stop Jesus from mixing spit and dirt into mud and placing on the blind man’s eyes.

           Mud is an essential part of life and it is also sacred because it is of the earth that God created and formed out of darkness and brought into the light.  Thus, it’s no surprise that Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, uses mud to create something new, to give sight to a blind man who was born unseeing.

More alarming is the Pharisees’, the religious leaders’ judgment of the blind man and Jesus.  In spite of this extraordinary act of compassion, the Pharisees believe the blind man is a sinner from birth who is undeserving of healing and that Jesus is a heretic.

The Pharisees have become so self-righteous and full of absolutes and lofty ideals that they’re no longer grounded in God’s ways. They care more about their own status and prestige than getting their clothes dirty by helping their brothers and sisters in need.

The Pharisees have become completely detached from those they are called by God to serve.  They claim to be all knowing about God while ignoring the God who dwells with the poor, sick and oppressed, the Christ who is willing to get mud on his hands to show love to another human being. They’ve forgotten the beauty and joy of playing and working in the mud and being in relationship with others.

The Pharisees behave as no one else matters but them and their absolutes about how God works. And sadly our history shows there have been hard-nosed religious folks who’ve acted just as arrogantly and dogmatically ever since.

The late science historian and mathematician Jacob Bronowski commented on this egotistical behavior of some human beings in the 1973 BBC documentary Ascent of Man:

“It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.”

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here, to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.”

Jesus, according to the Gospel of John, spits on the ground and makes mud with his own saliva and touches the blind man’s eyes. And minutes later, after washing his face in a nearby pool, the man is able to see for the first time in his life!

Christ’s actions are a reminder that we as his followers are supposed to touch people—to reach out and dirty our hands if necessary to bring love and life to someone else.  We as followers are called to meet Jesus in the mud.

And it will be clear and beautiful… if we have the eyes to see it

Amen.

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A Song for Dead Saturday: Hurt by Johnny Cash

“Hurt”
(originally written and performed by Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails)

I hurt myself today 
To see if I still feel 
I focus on the pain 
The only thing that’s real 
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting 
Try to kill it all away 
But I remember everything 

[Chorus:]
What have I become 
My sweetest friend 
Everyone I know goes away 
In the end 
And you could have it all 
My empire of dirt 
I will let you down 
I will make you hurt 

I wear this crown of thorns 
Upon my liar’s chair 
Full of broken thoughts 
I cannot repair 
Beneath the stains of time 
The feelings disappear 
You are someone else 
I am still right here 

[Chorus:]
What have I become 
My sweetest friend 
Everyone I know goes away 
In the end 
And you could have it all 
My empire of dirt 
I will let you down 
I will make you hurt 

If I could start again 
A million miles away 
I would keep myself 
I would find a way

What’s So Good About Good Friday?

"Christ and the Thief" by Nikolai Ge, Russian painter, late 1800s
“Christ and the Thief” by Nikolai Ge, Russian painter, late 1800s

This is God’s new commandment, that we should look at him: how in death he creates life, on the cross, resurrection.

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I’ve always been curious about why Christians over the centuries have referred to Christ’s death as Good Friday. What’s so good about it? Jesus is mocked, beaten and nailed to a cross where he suffers hours in agony before breathing his final breath.

And yet Luke’s gospel account of Jesus’ suffering and death tells us that in the midst of Christ’s final moments, something else in happening in the midst of the horror–something mysterious, something better, something hopeful.

The thief who recognizes the injustice of Jesus being on the cross: He is longer a criminal. He is a forgiven and redeemed soul.

The soldier who stands adorned in body armor and carries a mighty spear in hand: He is no longer believes in the Roman gods of his childhood and culture or feels an allegiance to the self-proclaimed messiah known as Caesar. He is a new disciple of the one true God whose promises to nurture and care for all of creation are steadfast.

The women who grieve from afar, long after everyone else has left the foot of the cross: They are no longer just pieces of property and second-hand citizens in a patriarchal world. They are bearers of the story of God’s dwelling on earth.

Maybe the good of this Friday is that even during suffering and death, the mysterious God is still transforming hearts and the world in love.

Even death is changed. Death is no longer the ending, but is instead destroyed as Jesus breathes his last.

Good often occurs amid the bad. However it is good none the less.

 

40 Days For Food Justice

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Although we’re a couple of weeks into Lent, I wanted to share this wonderful devotional resource that explores the meaning of the season through issues of food justice: 40 Days for Food Justice

Created by Rev. MargaretAnne Overstreet and sponsored by the Minnesota Institute of Contemplation and Healing (MICAH) and the Presbytery of the Northern Plains, the project–each day throughout Lent–highlights “one individual offering their perspective on food justice: what food justice means to them and where they see people and communities at work to promote greater food justice.”

My perspective on food justice was posted today and I’m grateful to MargaretAnne (whom I didn’t know prior to her contacting me) for inviting me to be a part of this project. 

Be sure to check out the previous 12 days from gifted leaders in the Church universal and don’t miss any of the 28 posts to come. These  essays are ideal for personal devotions and conversation starters, and the various perspectives will open your eyes, heart, mind and soul this Lenten season and beyond.

Re-creating Saturday

I have often viewed this time between Good Friday and Easter as Dead Saturday (also known as Nothing Saturday, Dark Saturday or Holy Saturday) and typically I spend the hours feeling depressed and morose while contemplating the death of Christ.   I am not the only one as I discovered (yet again) while reading a friend’s status and subsequent comment thread posted this morning on Facebook:

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I agree with every comment and yet as I read them, I felt something stir inside me. A new idea.

A new idea that began with the question: “What if we’re are looking at ‘Saturday’ all wrong?”

Certainly living in the tension of this ambiguous day is appropriate. Reflecting on how the disciples and world felt at the time of Jesus’ death is important for understanding and deepening one’s faith. But should we spend the entire day stuck in a funk–especially when we know how this is all going to turn out? 

It’s hard to forget or unlearn what we know so remaining in the doldrums of this Saturday for any number of hours seems to be a waste of time. After-all many of us preacher types are familiar with the phrase: It’s Friday/Saturday now…but Sunday’s coming!

I’m not suggesting that we immediately and prematurely jump to Easter Sunday or push people too quickly out of a necessary stage of grief and pain. I do believe wholeheartedly in the wisdom shared in yesterday’s Jaweed Kaleem’s Huffington Post column:

If you are not clear in your head about your understanding about somebody dying tragically, if you cannot reconcile that with the higher power of God or force of nature, this will be tough work for you,” said Handzo, who teaches chaplains and palliative care specialists. “You will probably not do it well, and you will burn out. You have to go through death to get to resurrection.

It’s important for me to be reminded that this part of the of the Christian story. … It’s painful, but it’s also what can make things meaningful,” he said. “We can make a mistake a lot of times with people who are dying. We can take our beliefs and say ‘the resurrection is coming,’ or ‘things will get better.’ But some people are not ready for that, they are still hurting and mourning, and they don’t need that happy good news stuff. They need to be allowed to be where they are, to have that Good Friday time.

However, it seems that I and others are more inclined to believe that we have to spend this day mired in guilt, sadness and lament when it would be much more fitting to move through the suffering as a way of observing this Nothing/Dark/Dead/Holy Saturday.

Again, this doesn’t mean we should start shouting “Chris is risen! He is risen indeed!” and burst into loud choruses of Ode to Joy but it perfectly reasonable for us to be happy on this day and embrace the joys of life and God’s creation. True, God is dead, the Trinity is broken and the cosmos is torn…but simultaneously it’s not. God is still ALIVE, otherwise existence would’ve ceased to exist at the moment Jesus uttered his last breath. The world kept turning. The active and present God stayed on the move. There was a process that occurred between cross and empty tomb. There was something that raised a living body from the dead, that conquered death and exposed the cruel and violent powers and principalities. That process. That something.  That was God!

God who entered the world in human form (but still remained the holy and mysterious God) died and then raised God-self from the clutches of death–thus transforming the world and creating a new reality, vision, kingdom of God on earth and heaven.

It’s crazy and mysterious and yet true, none the less. God in Christ told the disciples this is exactly what would happen. He would be betrayed, abandoned, killed, die and in three days, be resurrected (Matthew 20:17-19, Mark 10:33-34 and Luke 18:31-33). The disciples were too bound up in the trauma and drama of those three days that they forgot Jesus’ words. But we have the benefit of hindsight, of being able to look at the texts and remember…again, and again, and again that death will not have the final say in this story of God and humanity.

Even though there will be pain, dying and death today and tomorrow on Easter and throughout the Easter season to come and beyond, death. never. has. the. final. say. NEVER. But God does:

No matter how much the mess and distortion make you want to despair, you can’t abandon the work because you’re chained to the bloody thing. It’s absolutely woven into your soul and you know you can never rest until you’ve brought truth out of all the distortion and beauty out of all the mess—but it’s agony, agony, agony—while simultaneously being the most wonderful and rewarding experience in the world—and that’s the creative process which so few people understand…You can’t create without waste and mess and sheer undiluted slog. You can’t create without pain. It’s all part of the process. (Rob Bell quoting characters in a favorite novel in his book Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering, 2009)

So instead of sitting around and feeling numb, let us be a part of the God-process that is shaping something out of suffering, that is transforming mess into beauty, death into life…

Pull out a carton of boring dusty-white looking eggs and dye them with an assortment of colors, either with your kids or by yourself.

Help your 4 and a half year old create a dio-rama with the small plastic safari animals she bought yesterday at the zoo.

Bake bread and take it to a neighbor who has been sick or who you’ve never spoken to.

Make some sandwiches and take them to the homeless men and women nearest to wherever you live.

Call up someone you disagree with and tell them you love them.

Plant some flowers in your yard.

Paint a picture.

Shovel snow from the walk.

Take photographs of the world around you.

Write a song.

Craft a story.

Create. Create. Create. (And) Re-create

Don’t stop creating.

Soap carvings, from "Drops Like Stars" by Rob Bell, 2009
Soap carvings, from “Drops Like Stars” by Rob Bell, 2009

The Only Way

Brave, thought-provoking, heart-felt posts from A Church For Starving Artists , The Blue Room Blog , and the Political Theology Blog , have encouraged me to share reflections on the theme of violence and Holy Week via a sermon I preached several years ago during a Maundy Thursday Worship Service  at a church I served in Maryland.

Jesus arrested“The Only Way”, a Sermon for April 5, 2007, Colesville Presbyterian Church, Matthew 26:47-54

As I read the news earlier this week about deadly workplace shootings at Atlanta’s CNN Center and the University of Washington’s Seattle campus, my mind immediately recalled the murder of my friend Bonkey Nezeriah McCain that occurred 15 years ago in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama.

Bonkey was at the local Pizza Hut with other members of the Shades Valley High School football team, celebrating their Friday night victory over a rival high school. As the players were leaving the restaurant to head home, a car drove by and a teenage hand reached out of the window with a gun and shot into the crowd. Although he wasn’t the intended target, Bonkey received a barrage of bullets to the chest. He died hours later in the hospital.

Bonkey and his family were active members of Shades Valley Presbyterian Church where I grew up. We became friends in youth group. Bonkey was a gentle, kind and talented guy who always had a huge smile on his face. Bonkey’s death struck a huge blow within he hearts of his family, friends, church, high school and community. It particularly jolted me because it was the first time I have ever known someone who died from an act of violence. The tragedy opened my eyes to see that deaths like Bonkey’s happen all the time, and that the blood of innocence is spilled very day in our streets and neighborhoods.

I have kept the experience of Bonkey’s death very close to my heart for many years, especially when I worked as a reporter at the Birmingham Post-Herald after graduating from college. Covering the police beat took me to the scenes of many senseless shootings and in the homes of many grieving families. Those experiences enabled me to be a pastor–to not just share other people’s stories but be a part of their story. God was calling me to be a source of comfort and to guide others in their life stories–in times of joy and tragedy, love and loss.

As a pastor and Christian, I believe deep down in my heart that God’s love prevails over violence and death and that God’s love shines as a light into the darkness of the world. I know that God’s love and grace for humanity and all of creation is unconditional and steadfast. I’ve seen so many wonderful examples of God’s power in my life. And yet it’s what I precisely know about God’s love for us that makes me shake my head when I hear stories about senseless acts of violence.

There are those times, however, when I have great doubts about humanity because of the way we as a human race have responded to God’s love throughout history. As Satan tells Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane in a 1999 movie about Christ’s life: “Killing for Christ will be a big business through the centuries… You’re dying, your agony will give them another reason to kill and torture each other.” (Satan says these things as visions of the  Crusades and World War I appear behind them.

We know this to be true; killing for Christ has become a big business!  Jesus’ death and agony have given humankind other reason to kill and torture. But the reason is not, as Satan claims, the fault of God in Christ Jesus. No, it is our fault; it is our sin, our greed, our selfishness, our failure to recognize our own faults and to accept others who are different from us.

Just thing for a moment of all the killing that has been done and continues to be done in God’s name–the Holocaust; the lynching of black men, women and children during the 50s and 60s; the Jim Jones massacre; the war in Iraq; the genocide in Darfur; the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts; the Serbian conflict…

And if we’re not killing and violently harming others in the name of God, we’re doing it with no regard for God and the world God created. Just this week alone:

two women were killed in deadly workplace shootings in Georgia and Washington state

a woman was shot and stabbed by her estranged husband at a fast food restaurant in Louisiana

a 2-year-old girl was killed in a drive-by shooting in Kansas

a 40-year-old woman was killed in a drive-by shooting in Prince George’s County

11 plant workers were killed by a gunmen in Northern Iraq

a woman in the United Kingdom had her ear bitten off by her abusive boyfriend

And if we’re not acting out in violence, we’re endorsing it, even and maybe especially Christians. Often we hear preachers and church members of various denominations talk about Jesus vanquishing the unbelieving infidels of other countries with a sword or god dishing out wrath in the forms of tornadoes on “sinful communities” or deadly diseases on “sinful people.”  Look up images of Jesus on the Internet, and you will find several depicting Jesus carrying a .35 on a street corner or holding a rifle in a desert landscape.

How quickly we forget why Jesus came in the fist place. How quickly we forget that Jesus came to spread God’s love rather than to justify our hate. The disciples, after sharing a last meal with their teacher, also quickly forgot the reason why Jesus is there among them. Not long after Jesus shares bread and cup, symbols of the suffering he will endure for humanity, a disciple breaks the body of another–draws his sword and cuts off the ear of one of the Roman soldiers who has come with Judas to arrest Jesus. The disciple is likely wrapped up in the idea that Jesus will be a king who violently overthrows the Roman oppressors.

But Jesus, who has spoken constantly in his ministry about resisting evil and the desire to do violence, says to the disciples (in the reading from Matthew’s Gospel): “Put your sword back in its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus utters the same command but with the following addendum: “Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me.”

The disciple, while rightly angry at the soldiers and protective of his teacher who is about to be arrested, beaten and crucified, has forgotten Christ’s words at the table. Although drawing the sword may be justifiable in this situation and the easy way to get out of this mess in the garden, it is not Jesus’ way. Jesus tells the disciple:

Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen this way?

Jesus, who is both human and divine, has all the power and right in the world to call upon God to send down armies of sword-carrying angels to wipe out the Roman Empire. In an instant, Jesus could’ve made it happen. He could’ve–as Satan tries to convince him in the TV film I mentioned earlier–ended it all by asking God to take him up to heaven from the garden of Gethsemane.

But Jesus doesn’t appeal to God to send armies of angels nor does he forget how God’s purposes must be fulfilled. Jesus knows his cup can not pass before him, that it must be drunk and spilled for the love of humanity and the freedom from sin. Jesus says int he film, shortly before he is betrayed by Judas, “I’m in the hearts of man and I will die for the everlasting kindness of the human heart created by my Father so men will make God’s image shine once again.”

In the betrayal scene from the movie Color of the Cross, which we viewed clips of during the Agape Meal we partook in earlier this evening, Jesus says to the disciple who cuts the ear of the soldier, “The prophecy must be fulfilled. I will come quietly.” Jesus then bends down and heals the soldier’s ear as it is recorded in Luke’s Gospel.

The prophecy must be fulfilled God’s way, Jesus’ way–the loving, suffering, non-violent way, the only way. A way vastly different from our own. And the way begins at the table and with the words of Christ who tells us that his body will be broken for us and his blood will be spilled for us. Not the blood of others, but Jesus’ blood. And it is at this table that we acknowledge and proclaim, not death’s victory over Christ, but God’s nonviolent victory through Christ’s death. Biblical scholar Walter Wink reminds us:

The last supper celebrates Jesus’ nonviolent breaking of the spiral of violence by absorbing its momentum with his own body…Jesus clearly rejected the military option as a way to redress Jewish grievances. He refused to lead troops in war against Rome, or defend his own cause by violent means… Throughout the history of his people’s violent and nonviolent struggle for survival, Jesus discovered a way of opposing evil without becoming evil in the process.

Let us come to this table on the night of Jesus’ last meal, Jesus betrayal and Jesus’ nonviolent resistance to those who arrested him. Let us come remembering and celebrating Jesus’ nonviolent breaking of the spiral of violence that humanity has committed, is committing and will commit after the bread is broken and the cup is poured. Let us come knowing that the spiral, no matter how dizzying it becomes, has been broken, is broken and will be broken by Christ’s suffering and death so that the world might be whole again.

In the name of the suffering and broken servant Jesus Christ our Lord who says it can only happen this way,

Amen.

Sources:

“Jesus,” 1999

“Color of the Cross,” 2006

“The Powers That Be by Walter Wink, 1999

“Lanham Woman Hit By A Stray Bullet Mourned, Funeral Held,” March 24, 2007

“Man Bites Off Partner’s Ear,” April 4, 2007, NW Evening Mail

“Man Accused of Killing Wife At Job,” April 4, 2007, KATC 3 News

“Girl Injured in Drive-By-Shooting Dies,” April 5, 2007, Kansas City Star

“Workplace Shootings,” April 5, 2007, CNN.com

Blessed

 A Sermon for February 24, 2013, The Second Sunday of Lent, Matthew 9:18-26 and Luke 13:31-35

                One of my top five favorite films celebrated it’s 25th a few months ago, the romantic-comedy-adventure flick, The Princess Bride[1]. A modest box-office success turned cult classic, the movie is immensely popular among people of all ages and is eminently quotable.

             There are so many great scenes and one-liners in the story, but my favorite is not—as you might guess—the sword fighter Inigo Montoya’s delicious declaration of revenge against the six-fingered man who killed his father. Nor is it the Impressive Clergyman who, during the wedding of Prince Humperdinck, is unable to pronounce his “R’s” and “L’s” when talking about “twu wuv” and “mawage.” [2]

The Dread Pirate Roberts (Cary Elwes) from "The Princess Bride" 1987.
The Dread Pirate Roberts (Cary Elwes) from “The Princess Bride” 1987.

            The moment of The Princess Bride that actually sticks out for me, more often than not, is when the heroine Buttercup is in the clutches of the Dread Pirate Roberts. She is pining for her beloved Wesley whom she believes was killed by her captor. The Dread Pirate Roberts, a mysterious man clad in a black mask and outfit, explains in an arrogant tone that he has to dispose his prisoners or folks will think he’s gone soft. Upon hearing these words, Buttercup screams: “You mock my pain!” And the Dread Pirate Roberts bluntly responds: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

Life is pain—the most serious line in the entire movie and one of the deepest and truest sayings ever uttered in history. 

             Suffering is ingrained in the human condition, a significant part of reality that can never be completely avoided in one’s lifetime. We dread the misery and yet are also inexplicably drawn to it because suffering is so familiar, so much a measure of who we are as flesh and blood people.  We are avid consumers of stories of pain and heartache, especially the ones that permeate every aspect of pop culture: chart-busting country songs by Taylor Swift and Darius Rucker; critically acclaimed TV shows like The Good Wife, The Walking Dead and Downton Abbey; Oscar-nominated movies for best picture such as Argo, Les Miserables, Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook; and best-selling novels by Nicholas Sparks and Gillian Flynn.

              And then, of course, there is The Holy Bible. Printed in more than 6,000 languages and distributed to billions of people for centuries, this sacred book of the Christian faith is brimming with some form of suffering on nearly every page, like this story from the Gospel of Matthew 9:18-26:

While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagoguecame in and knelt before him, saying, ‘My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.’ And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.’ Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, ‘Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up.And the report of this spread throughout that district.[3]

"Loved Ones Mourn Teen" from The Birmingham Post-Herald, Wednesday Dec. 29, 1999
“Loved Ones Mourn Teen” from The Birmingham Post-Herald, Wednesday Dec. 29, 1999

A desire to not ignore the plight of the suffering and to be fully present with them (just as Jesus was) stirred within me while working on a story for The Birmingham Post-Herald in December 1999, the week after Christmas.

             Jamelle Grace, 16, had spent most of a Monday helping move furniture into the home of his older brother Warren Grace Jr. Hoping to do more work the next day, Jamelle stayed overnight at his brother’s.  About 12:30 am, as Jamelle lay sleeping on the living room couch, someone kicked in the front door and began shooting. Warren and a cousin who lived in the house were able to escape without much harm. But Jamelle was killed instantly.

              Later that Tuesday evening, I visited the home of Jamelle’s dad Warren Grace Sr. so I could write a front-page feature story about the tragedy and its impact on the family.  Sitting next to the father on the sofa, I heard wonderful stories about “a good kid” who loved building model airplanes, and cars, enjoyed music, had a pet snake named Polo and was looking forward to getting his driver’s license. Warren Sr.’s eyes welled with tears as he spoke about his son. Instinctively, I put down my pad and pen and placed my hand on his shoulder.  You will be in my thoughts and prayers, I told him.  A half hour later, I thanked Warren Sr., for talking to me about Jamelle. And then I left for the office to bang out an article for the next day’s newspaper. In that moment, I discovered that I’d prefer to hold the hand of someone who is suffering instead of simply writing their story and moving on to the next article to fill up space in the newspaper. Thus, a call to be an ordained minister began to emerge and in mid summer of 2002, nearly three years after that visit with the Grace family, I entered seminary.

                In the decade that has followed, I’ve witnessed more pain and suffering in full-time ministry than the numerous deadly crimes and accidents that I covered for the newspaper.  There are so many folks in this congregation and other churches who are experiencing profound brokenness and heartache in their lives (most of which doesn’t make it on most prayer chains because of reasonable requests for confidentiality). 

               On top of personal agony, there is immense suffering in the community, nation and world around us. We observe others dealing with an immense amount of pain on a regular basis whenever we enter the office or go to school or walk down a city street or flip on the TV or browse social media from our smart phones: divorce, illness, poverty, hunger, starvation, oppression, pollution, slavery, abuse, murder, war, fraud, drug and alcohol addictions, estranged relationships, death of a loved one, loss of a job.

               Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped bring an end apartheid in South Africa, says: “In the universe we inhabit, there will always be suffering. Suffering is often how we grow, especially how we grow emotionally, spiritually and morally. That is, when we let the suffering ennoble us and not embitter us.”[4]

               It’s important to note that neither Tutu nor I are suggesting that God causes suffering so that we as human beings can learn a life lesson. God doesn’t move us around like chess pieces or randomly inflict harm on some but not on others.  And God doesn’t doll out pain as a punishment for our sins.

             A lot of suffering in this world is actually caused by human choice, not by a hateful and vengeful God.  If someone is slapping around their girlfriend or sexually abusing a child or bullying another kid at school, it is not God’s will that the victims should suffer such horrendous torture and pain. If someone is born into a third-world country rife with war and famine, it is not God’s will that the person should suffer such appalling injustice.

            And incredible phenomenon like disease, earthquakes and storms—which is largely out of our hands—are ordinary occurrences, not God’s unleashing of destructive forces on those deemed to be unworthy of love and grace.

"Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering" by Rob Bell
“Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering” by Rob Bell

Regardless of the cause, whether nature or human beings, suffering is here to stay.  We have no other choice but to bear it, to try to alleviate it some in the lives of ourselves and others through selfless acts of love, and to grow from it—to be emboldened and not embittered by it. In his book Drops Like Stars[5], pastor and theologian Rob Bell puts it this way:

We are going to suffer. And it is going to shape us. Somehow. We will become bitter or better, closed or open, more ignorant or more aware. (We will become) more or less tuned in to the thousands of gifts we are surrounded with every single moment of every single day.

 A few pages later, Bell recalls a novel he read in which a theologian visits a sculptor in her studio. The theologian offers elegant and complicated ideas about God, suffering and life. But the sculptor offers a different and simpler perspective:

No matter how much the mess and distortion make you want to despair, you can’t abandon the work because you’re chained to the bloody thing. It’s absolutely woven into your soul and you know you can never rest until you’ve brought truth out of all the distortion and beauty out of all the mess—but it’s agony, agony, agony—while simultaneously being the most wonderful and rewarding experience in the world—and that’s the creative process which so few people understand…You can’t create without waste and mess and sheer undiluted slog. You can’t create without pain. It’s all part of the process.

When I was a teenager, a dear friend who was a member of my church’s youth group and a football player at my high school, Bonkey McCain, was killed in a drive-by shooting outside a local restaurant following a football game. Although Bonkey wasn’t the intended target, he took three bullets to the chest when the occupants of a passing car opened fire into the crowd of teens gathered in the parking lot.

                   The death shook up the church, the high school and the community, and it completely changed the life of Bonkey’s mother, Carmen. She was already known for going into urban communities at night to preach Jesus to gang members and drug pushers. But with the loss of Bonkey, she began a new crusade to combat gun violence and to be a voice for hundreds of moms whose kids were killed by a stray bullet during a drive-by.

 

"Here fight against violence hits home" from The Birmingham Post-Herald, Thursday April 13, 2000.
“Here fight against violence hits home” from The Birmingham Post-Herald, Thursday April 13, 2000.

And then several years later, in April 2000, another senseless act of violence struck Carmen’s life when her sister Anne was stabbed to death by Anne’s ex-husband.  I was doing my stint at the Post-Herald at the time so naturally I interviewed Carmen for the newspaper.  I remember her telling me that it was God’s strength that helped her through suffering:

I don’t stay laying in tears. You get up, dust yourself off and swing at the devil because he’s never going to stop coming…You have to instill with people that life must go on. Things are going to happen unforeseen; you can’t up and move away every time a tragedy occurs. You still have to carry the torch for other people to see…God always allows you to go through something so you can be a help to someone else. I know the force behind my message is pain.

                 Like the hemorrhaging woman and the sleeping girl in Matthew’s gospel, Carmen reached out to God in the midst of suffering. In doing so, she let the suffering embolden her and brazenly shape the pain into a message of non-violence. Carmen allowed suffering to make her more open and aware that there is a lot of work to be done in the name of God’s love. She courageously reflected the actions of Jesus who understood better than any of us that suffering can not slow down or even stop the work of God. Consider the following story from The Gospel of Luke 13:31-35:

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He  said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me,‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’

              It’s remarkable isn’t it? Jesus is receiving death threats on the job and he shrugs it off as if it’s no big deal! In the words of Carmen McCain, Jesus tells the Pharisees that he’s going to pick himself up, dust himself off and keep swinging at the devil because he’s never going to stop coming!

                The fiery pronouncement quickly turns to a cry of lament as Jesus broods over the suffering that the city of Jerusalem endures at the hands of the Roman Empire and the people’s refusal of the prophets who come to rescue them.  Jesus, of course, is also ruminating over the suffering he must endure to save the whole lot of ‘em (and us for that matter). Jesus knows you can’t create without “waste and mess and sheer undiluted slog. You can’t create without pain. It’s all part of the process.”

               Jesus concludes that since the people of Jerusalem have chosen to be embittered by suffering, he must be shaped by the agony that will come in the form of mockery, beatings and a horrendous death on a cross. He must be shaped by the suffering so that he can use the anguish to reshape and redeem the world, making it whole once again.

            Therein lies, amid this Lenten season, the hope for humanity and the brokenness that all of creation suffers:

            Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

 

Amen.


[1] The Princess Bride, directed by Rob Reiner. Screenplay by William Goldman, author of the book the film is based on. 20th Century Fox Films. 1987.

[2] During the first wedding I ever officiated (2006), I began the meditation by quoting the Impressive Clergyman. J

[3] New Revised Standard Version

[4] God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time by Desmond Tutu, Doubleday Publishing. 2006.

[5] Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering, Zondervan Publishing. 2009.