Finding Life: Summer 2020
Where is God When We Suffer? And Where Does that Leave Us?
Aug 16, 2020
For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF” to view.
For this week’s Spiritual Practice on grief through Lamentations, click HERE.
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Hi, Friends, let me start with two short readings from the Bible’s little letter called Philippians.
Philippians 2:5-11 (NRSV)
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 4:11b-13 (NRSV)
I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
One night last month, I stood outside the state house as one of the marshalls for an encampment for immigrant rights. There were maybe 30, 40 people living round the clock in tents on the steps of the state house, seeking access to drivers licenses for all Mass immigrants, documented or not. I didn’t fit in very well. The folks at the encampment were pretty much all either radical young white leftists from Western Mass. Or Brazilian members of an immigrant rights collective. And they didn’t really need me at all. There were several marshalls signed up to keep an eye on passersby and safety. I didn’t have much of anything to do, so I stood there, or sometimes sat by myself thinking, praying, spacing out as I stared at the moon rising over the Boston Common.
But for a while, an 8-year old kid pulled up a chair next to me and started talking. He said he’d been living at the encampment for a few days with his sister and his mom, who was watching us. I couldn’t understand everything he said because we were sitting a few feet apart and we were both wearing masks – well, he was mainly wearing a mask. But we talked about his
favorite video games: Mario Cart, which I play sometimes, and Fortnight, which I’ve never played. He had a lot to say about Chuck-E-Cheese, which seemed normal for an 8-year old but then he kept telling some kind of a story about someone that got killed there at night but if you had a rifle or a pistol, you’re OK. And I didn’t know if he was talking about Chuck-E-Cheese or video games anymore, which was weird. He had a lot to say about his favorite subject, which was math, and I told him a couple tricks about times tables, which he said he was going to learn next year. He also told me about his little sister too, who I saw, and the baby brother he was going to have but who died right after he was born. And then his Mom came up to take him to bed, and between us, there was a language barrier, but I thought: what happens if we don’t get this drivers’ license bill passed? Is his mom here advocating for others, or is she undocumented herself? And what if his mom at some point ends up in detention for failing to use her signal at a traffic light or getting rear-ended by another car – stuff that pretty much every Boston driver knows well. And if not her, it’ll be another family somewhere else, with another weird and sweet and amazing 8-year old kid. And after me and the 8-year old and his family parted ways, I thought, My God, where are you?
Grace and I ask that question now and then this year. Actually, to be totally honest, it’s not just this year, but a lot of years. If you have kids or love anyone’s kids, you know that they stir love and pride and joy in you like little else can. But you also know that when you love kids, part of your heart is ripped out of your body and lives inside someone else. So that when they suffer or lose or have heartbreak, you have it too. This has been a year of loss and heartbreak all around, but certainly for kids, and whatever you think about all the debates and decisions around school/not school this year, there looks like there’s plenty more loss and heartbreak ahead, and sometimes Grace and I as parents find ourselves wondering, God, where are you? What are you doing, God?
It gets murky to us sometimes, but the New Testament is actually super-clear on where God is and what God is doing. God is with us. God is especially with those of us who are most diminished and degraded. And God is suffering, just as God is coming alongside those who suffer.
Jesus was not raised among the urban elite, but in a nothing of backwater small town. Jesus was born not as a self-sufficient independent grownup, but as a vulnerable infant. Jesus didn’t have access to means and privilege and networks; he was a peasant commoner. One of Jesus’ nicknames was “Man of Sorrows.” What a title to have, right? When they’re not calling me “friend of sinners,” they call me the “man of sorrows.” What kind of person would have those nicknames?
And here we read that Jesus was empty, humble, dying, not just a human, but a slave human. For a country that’s still only just coming to grips with a 250-year history of brutal, violent, racist enslaving of human beings, this is a hard, bracing word – to read that Jesus the Son of God was also a slave.
This was also not just a metaphor or turn of phrase for the first readers of this letter. Every Roman city, and every early Roman house church had actual slaves in it. And so for slaves and slave owners and all the other bystanders, to be told by Paul – this faith leader – that Jesus was a slave, and that he also was Lord, Master, this title given to the Roman emperor, well that would have busted open all of what they thought they knew about how the world worked. Jesus, the God and human, the slave and master, the nothing, the degraded one, and the everything, the exalted one.
What did this tell them about themselves and about God? What does it tell us about ourselves and about God?
Much more than I yet understand, but three things I know.
This tells us what God is, it tells us where God is, and it tells how God is.
For millennia, in the ancient world and in more recent times, thinking and writing about God, and organizing and talking about religion, was in the hands of the global elite. The literate, the powerful, the winners whole write history. God has been used to justify the status quo. The maker made things as they are, so accept them. And God has been assumed to be all-powerful, in the ways that people understand and practice power. God can and does do everything God wants, so if someone is suffering, likely it is God’s will. If God hasn’t fixed a problem, then the people involved don’t have enough faith, or it’s a problem God doesn’t want to fix.
But with Jesus’ followers, it was different. First, ordinary people wrestled with who Jesus was. They decided their experience of Jesus only made sense if he was both the ideal human and God in the flesh, full God, full human. And then they started wondering what this showed them about God, if Jesus was the most perfect picture of God the world has ever seen.
And they realized God’s power is not what we thought it was. God is not just a bigger, stronger, more controlling version of the powers of this world. God’s power is fully consistent with God’s nature as love, which means God doesn’t manipulate and control. And God’s power is fully consistent with A God who could divest rights and control, a God who could empty oneself in love towards others, a God who could be a baby, a God who could be a slave.
This means God doesn’t control or choose all things. There are other forces in the universe – like you and me, and gravity, and the Jet stream, and accusing, bullying people and systems and voices, and the mysterious workings of quantum mechanics. Lots of stuff happens in the world, for lots of reasons, and it is not all God’s will.
But God is also never absent. God is always present as a powerful person and force of healing love. Even if God doesn’t always immediately get God’s way, God is always there. And God is always there as a healing, loving, liberating, strengthening presence. As a God who has died and has risen.
That is what God is.
That’s what, now the where.
The simple answer is that God is where people suffer most. Now, I think God is with all of us, and we’ll end today’s time with that. But I’d be unfaithful to the Bible and the best insights of modern theology if I didn’t say that God’s especially with people on the bottom of the human pyramid of privilege. God who became slave, God who was born vulnerable and poor, God who only knew life in the flesh as a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern, colonized working class Jew, rejected by the elites of his people, and killed by the state. That God is especially in solidarity with people more like that.
This is why I try to do justice work by the way. I’ve been trying as an adult to learn something about solidarity, trying to learn to be where I can most find God. So hanging out with the 8-year old kid at the encampment, as he told me about his video games and his school, and his living and dead siblings and affection for Chuck E Cheese, well, I’m not there to do anything special for him. I’m out of my league there. If we get safety and justice and security for the Massachusetts families who watch our kids and clean our buildings and pick our crops and drive our ubers, it’s poor, but passionate and well-organized immigrants like that kid’s mom who’re doing the most of the work to get it done. And there are advocates and organizers in solidarity with them who know much more than I do about making change happen.
For me, though, to feel the tiniest bit of what this kid feels, seeing the tiniest bit of what he sees, I get to reorient my life and my heart a little bit to the vulnerable, but fierce love of God who is with him and his cause.
Solidarity with God is kind of simple – if you want to find God, go to the unjust spaces. Go to the hurting spaces. When you have opportunity to be in relationship with injustice and suffering in others, don’t try to be an expert if you’re not. Certainly don’t try to be a savior. Be present. Be a friend. See what happens in you, see what you discover of God there.
This by the way is a call for all of us, not just for those of us who are most wealthy, or most secure, or most privileged. I’ve learned from friends and from privilege and oppression, not-suffering and suffering are all intersectional. So just as there’s no way to wall ourselves off from suffering, no matter how rich or powerful we are, there’s also no place where we can be in life where we will encounter people and situations where the hurt and disempowerment in someone else is more vulnerable than ours – and we can move away or move in. But when we move in, when we’re present with empathy, we do what God does, and we go where God goes.
Now of course, for those of us with some privilege, this is the exact opposite of what we learned to do as kids, what we’ve been told to do our whole lives! The American way the past few generations has been to buy our way out of lack, to move ourselves away from poverty, to associate with people as secure and privileged as ourselves.
But our attempts to avoid suffering and vulnerability haven’t set us up real well for this year, have they? Life will remind us again and again that we are vulnerable, and we’ll only be resilient, we’ll only have faith and capacity for joy and hope and love if we believe God can be with us in every vulnerability, so that we don’t have to avoid hard places.
Which is HOW God is. God is with us. God is with us as the God who knows humiliation and suffering and vulnerability. And God is with us as the God who knows resurrection power from those places as well. God who sees us, who hears us, who loves to be with us, and is strong enough to help, to liberate.
I was talking with one of you recently about your struggle to experience God with you in your work, and I realized I was being like a spiritual doctor. I gave a prescription to pray the old prayer of Saint Patrick for 21 days in a row. And I think I was prescribing this prayer, because it was a back door into Spirit of God prescribing it for me as well.
Pastoring is like that sometimes to be honest. We find God’s word for ourselves as we’re listening for God’s word for others. It’s true.
This prayer is a mystical, poetic stab at the radical heart of our faith.
I arise today, through a mighty strength, remembering the Trinity, trusting the threeness, naming the oneness of the Creator. I arise today through the strength of every part of Christ’s life, which is both for me and is the pattern of my life as well. I arise today in the strength of everything God has done in our collective past, and everything God is upholding on this beautiful earth. Because I am one with Jesus, and Jesus and one with God, we are all connected. Everything that God is and has is connected to every part of me. This is the unity with God that baptism pictures. This is the unity with God that Jesus prays for us, that all of us will be connected to all of God. That all of God will be accessible to all of us.
And so the prayer climaxes saying Christ is everywhere. Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ beside me, Christ within me… Christ in everyone…
I was drawn to Philippians this year at first, I think, because it’s so darn happy. Philippians is known as the letter of joy. It’s the most upbeat spot in the Bible, perhaps.
But as I read Philippians again and again during the early days of a pandemic, I remembered that Paul wrote Philippians from prison. Prison is not a free and happy place. It’s the one place no one wants to go. And Paul knew that some of his first readers were slaves. Which arguably is one of only things that can happen to you in life that’s worse than prison.
The peace and joy and freedom and strength of Philippians does not come from happy, easy, wealthy, feel-good times. It is pandemic reading.
And yet, Paul insists that it is possible for the liberating, joyful, resurrection peace of Christ to replace anxiety at the center of our lives. And, as we read today, that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. This is decidedly not about weight-lifting or getting a promotion. It’s about contentment It’s about joy while you’re in prison. It’s about the power of inner freedom, maybe the strength to find outer freedom, when you’re enslaved. It’s about joy and contentment even when you can’t leave your house, and people are getting sick. It’s about the possibility of the good life during a pandemic.
Not because this isn’t hard. Not because we’d ever wish these conditions upon anyone, ourselves included. But because God is here. Christ is behind me, Christ is before me, Christ where we are hurting, Christ where we are dying, Christ where we are living. … not just me, but the whole human family, the whole earth.
May it be. Amen.