This is the week—Holy Week—
when we watch Jesus go through incredible SUFFERING.
True, Isaiah, which Ann just read for us, foreshadowed that Jesus would be the one
who willingly shouldered suffering for the sake of God’s people.
And then we have the entry into Jerusalem,
the entry of the one who will endure that suffering.
Note that Luke’s take on the triumphant entry
is somewhat stripped of what we’d expect:
No donkey: Luke says there’s a colt.
No Crowd shouting Hosannah!
And no palms, at least not in Luke’s account.
Things are a bit different for Luke. Observers lay down their cloaks on the road.
Singers offer blessings to the one before them
rather than cries for salvation…
Luke seems to be offering a somewhat muted description
of Jesus’ long awaited entry into the holy city,
perhaps so as to not overshadow the events of the week to come.
then the betrayal by his disciples,
then trial and beating,
and finally… the cross.
A week of incredible SUFFERING.
In other words, when we gaze upon what is going to happen to Jesus this week
we might want to ask ourselves what that means for our own suffering….
Suffering is a particularly painful subject for believers and nonbelievers alike.
But the issues are different for the nonbeliever.
For instance, to whom is the unbeliever’s question:
“Why did this happen to me?” addressed?
If you don’t believe in a God who creates, sustains, orders, and heals,
then why on earth would you even ask?
To whom would you ask, “Why?”
Its painful because one asks that question to an empty universe,
and hears no answer, no EASTER, in response.
But for believers—whether yer rock solid most days
or, like the rest of us, have your ups and your downs
for those who affirm that God is something real in our lives…
Suffering is a somewhat different matter, all together.
In our times of inevitable suffering,
in the parade of pain that is the evening news,
or at the clinic
or sitting next to our broken friend
believers sometimes, maybe oft-times, ask:
“Why, God, did this happen?
Not just WHY. But: “Why, God?”
Steve was reluctant to go, but he went to the hospital and
spent a few hours with a friend in the last stages of ALS,
also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Along with his friend’s family, they sat together
and watched him struggle to swallow with labored breathing.
He had only a few functioning muscles left.
Steve left his friend with his grieving wife and children at his bedside,
And he asked me “Why did God allow this to happen to him, or to them, or to me?”
Now, Steve knew all the basics: We’re all finite creatures.
He understood disease and dying.
We’re all terminal, in some sense.
Our bodies break down in many different ways.
This man had already lived a long and full life.
Steve knew all of that.
Steve also knew that people DO things that bring suffering upon ourselves.
That there are things we can avoid in our lives that can ward off suffering.
We can eat better.
Or push ourselves to spend 5 more minutes on the treadmill
or we can give up smoking, say…
But granting all that, there is another question that we wonder
when we see another person suffer.
We might whisper: “What could God have done to avoid this.”
What Steve didn’t know, and what he felt he really needed to know, was:
“Why, God, do you not DO something? Why don’t you make it BETTER?”
One popular idea, that I gather might have some merit to it,
is that whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. You’ve heard that.
In my days working as a chaplain,
If I had a nickel for each time someone said to me
“God never puts more on us than we can bear.”
I’d be a rich man.
But then I’d think about those people I visited whose suffering
was far greater than they could bear.
Like when I sat with Steve and his friend and their family
And I’d wonder…
I know some people argue that that Pain and Suffering is Educational.
That could be true, I guess, in some circumstances, for some people.
Some can look back upon particularly difficult episodes in their life
and recognize that God was there leading them through it to a better place.
Who am I to presume that God wasn’t there during that time?
Sometimes, I think that’s true, actually.
But there is that point in much of our pain
when we cross over a threshold and it’s time for school to be out.
And if the suffering continues,
any possible educational, developmental opportunity in pain and faith
degenerates into cold, bleak, meaningless agony.
When that pain turns into anguish,
the questions tend not to be about the pain, but about God.
Will Willimon tells the story of a note he got the day after
he preached a sermon on the power of prayer.
“Monday, I got the note from a woman
who said that she could honestly say that she had never,
in all her life, prayed to God to give
her anything for herself.
Her prayers were always on behalf of others.
Her daughter, at age twelve,
was diagnosed with a rare blood disease.
Every day, twice a day, she beseeched God on her daughter’s behalf.
Every day. And at age sixteen, her daughter died.”
Willimon thought this over,
“Life can be solitary, poor, brutish, and short,
[as Thomas Hobbes observed].” Willimon said
“We are animals, not angels.
Stick your finger in a fire, you will feel pain.
We are wonderfully wired to work that way.
But wheel in someone whose body has been in pain
with bone cancer for the past 18 months,
invite in the mother of a young woman
who died at her desk on the 60th floor
on September 11, 2001…
and I daresay that our hopeful “Now, what can we learn from this,”
response is transformed into
our faith-threatening, despairing :
“Why, God, if you really ARE good, why do you not act?”
So, if you’re like me, then you’ve had that moment where you’ve asked:
Where the heck is God, Anyway?
Tsunamis. Wars. Devastating Earthquakes.
Cancer. Crippling Poverty. Systemic Racism.
Weapons of Mass Destruction. Radical Religious Terrorists.
We are GROANING here for some savior, some anointed one,
What the heck is God up to anyway? I want God to come and do something about it!
I expect God to come and do something about it….
There’s another response popular these days:
Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”,
says that God only had six-days to complete the world.
Things were left unfinished, you see.
God is not a personal errand boy, Kushner writes.
Something like this seems to be the conventional resolution of the matter.
God is indeed very good, but also very INACTIVE.
So, for instance, Robert Capon, the Australian scientist, argues that God
is not like a roaming mechanic
who wonders around night and day
ready to pounce upon motorists in distress,
fix their transmission,
and send them on their way.
If anything, God is more like the one who comes upon you on the side of the road
and sits in your car with you through the night, Capon says.
And I kind of like that imagery. Sometimes that’s EXACTLY what God does.
Sometimes, that’s how God most powerfully acts in our lives,
at our time of deep suffering.
But the problem, perhaps, is that Capon goes farther
and says that we should NEVER expect God to be
“troubled with intervening, rescuing, and saving” us. His words.
Capon argues for a God who is “empathetic, loving, sure, but not too engaged,
[a God] too humble to interfere with any of the natural laws
that God set up long ago before God absconded.”
The trouble is, the God we get from THAT
looks almost NOTHING like the God
who meets us most every Sunday in the scriptures.
THAT God, you may have noted, tends to enjoy talking, disrupting, intruding,
not to mention
raising the dead,
punishing the powerful,
uplifting the poor.
THAT God of scripture is always TELLING people EXACTLY what
they have spent their whole lives trying not to hear,
forever calling odd people to go do something that THIS God wants done,
always surprising, startling,
in short, a God DOING something ABOUT us and the world.
Maybe its easier to believe, not in the God we encounter in the Bible,
but in THIS disengaged, uninvolved God?
Deism is the word we use for the belief that God set up the world
and then left it to its own devices. God made the clock and then watches it run.
In a way, Deism makes belief in God easier for us,
because it rescues us from the dilemma of having to make excuses for
what we think is God’s lack of engagement
with us and with our suffering.
God doesn’t heal, save, rescue, or reach in this instance, or that instance,
not because God is UNCONCERNED
but rather because God is UNINVOLVED.
And a God safely filed away as some vague, spiritual FEELING,
leaves us free to go ahead and give ourselves more fully to
some more effective god –
the nation, the economy
the university, my favorite political candidate, whatever.
But here’s been my experience:
despite our expectations—
either our expectations that God has to do things our way
or that God ain’t gonna do anything at all…
Despite ourselves, God comes to us. God is there.
Someone feels God’s activity in their life,
the challenge to get involved, the call to self-giving love.
Somebody, even at their last hour, even in their suffering,
feels the warmth of a loving family
and the presence of a loving God
saying that Death is not the end of things.
A life gets uplifted, changed, a future rearranged,
and we realize that God is not as inactive and disengaged
as the modern world would have us believe.
Then, THEN, when we experience THAT, we realize
that maybe our greatest challenge with God is not that God doesn’t care,
but rather that God doesn’t care, heal, intervene,
act in the way that we expect God to.
That God doesn’t act in quite the way we think God is going to Act.
Today is Palm Sunday,
the beginning of the Passion, that is, the suffering of Jesus.
The story of Jesus,
like the entire biblical narrative of God’s interaction
in this world that God created
shows that God indeed loves us, cares for us, groans besides us
acts when God sees it wise to heal us, move us, shake us.
But God does this on God’s time, and bids us work within God’s time
while God works to make all things new.
Sometimes we want that to be our time, our way, our method. Not God’s .
We wanted Jesus to come in to town with a cavalry;
Jesus rode in on a colt.
We wanted Jesus to go up to the statehouse and fix all the political problems;
Jesus went to the temple to pray.
We wanted Jesus to get organized, mobilize his forces,
get the revolution going, and set things right.
Jesus gathered with his friends in an upper room,
broke bread, and drank wine.
We wanted Jesus to go head-to-head with the powers-that-be;
Jesus just hung there, on Friday, from noon until three,
with hardly a word.
It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t do anything;
it was that Jesus didn’t do the thing that we wanted, that we expected.
It wasn’t that Jesus did not intervene;
it was that Jesus rode in on a colt,…
with such power and energy and love
that when the leaders asked him to tone it down…
Jesus said that even the STONES WOULD SHOUT OUT
in loud joy and NOISY celebration.
It wasn’t that God was absent. It was that God acted
in such a powerfully different and loving way that the whole world shook.
The message of this week, this Holy Week, this passionate week,
is that God is intimately, powerfully, lovingly active in our world
if we just can open our eyes to see it.
That as Jesus walked into Jerusalem and ended up on a cross,
breaking our expectations and making all things new…
That God acted in a decisive way for you, for me, for Steve, for all of us.
And, through the events of this week, God sets us on a course where
suffering takes on new meaning,
where love ultimately defeats hate
peace will defeat war
hope will trounce fear.
But only, ONLY, AFTER the cross, the crucifixion….
And so, thanks be to God, the reality that we see this wondrous, this Holy Week
is a vibrant God who understands our suffering
and who works to helps us overcome it
not the way we might expect God to
but ultimately in ways that are for our good.
As we enter this week, as Jesus entered it,
let us watch and observe and add our voices to the blessings offered along the road
and make a joyful NOISE that the God we experience
isn’t at all like the God we want to make him to be…
but is so much more…
Quote and some inspiration for this sermon from William Willimon, “It’s the Way God Acts,” in Pulpit Resource (Vol 34, No 2, Year B, April, May, June 2006)