sermon preached at Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring, MD
by Josh Hosler, Seminarian
Proper 24B/ October 17, 2012
In his 1943 book The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis wrote that pain is God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” God uses pain, he says, to get our attention. Without pain, we would have no idea how much we need God or what God wants of us.
Eighteen years later, Lewis’s wife Joy died of cancer. And though I can’t find the quote, I’m sure I remember that he remarked, “I wish I’d known more about pain when I wrote The Problem of Pain.”
The odd thing about pain, of course, is that it looks different to the outsider than to the insider. We can talk about pain. We can theorize about its potential purposes. We can use all our rationalization skills and say, “Well, pain is necessary. It’s helpful. If we had no pain receptors, we’d never know anything was wrong. If we didn’t hurt for others, we wouldn’t be motivated to act compassionately. If we didn’t miss people who had died, it would only reveal that their lives didn’t matter to begin with.” All of this makes sense, of course. But would you say any of it to someone who is actually in pain? To stand here and talk about suffering is to talk as an outsider, and that means I have to be careful what I say. It’s not that I haven’t suffered. But you can be certain that I haven’t suffered in the same way you have.
So what is the meaning of suffering? Is there any meaning to it at all, or is it useless and needless? In our first reading today, we heard the Prophet Isaiah speak about a poetic biblical figure commonly called the Suffering Servant.
Listen to the version of Isaiah’s prophecy from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message: “Who would have thought that God’s saving power would look like this? … He was looked down on and passed over, a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand. One look at him and people turned away. We looked down on him, thought he was scum. But the fact is, it was our pains he carried—our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us. We thought he brought it on himself, that God was punishing him for his own failures. But it was our sins that did that to him, that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins! He took the punishment, and that made us whole. Through his bruises we get healed. We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost. We’ve all done our own thing, gone our own way. And God has piled all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong, on him, on him.”
Many Christians argue that this passage predicts the coming of Jesus some 800 years later, but let’s not begin with that assumption. Let’s wonder ourselves: “Who is the Suffering Servant?”
Let’s ask James and John, who in today’s Gospel ask to be Jesus’ right- and left-hand men. All they can think about is grabbing power, but Jesus retorts: “You don’t know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?”
The silly fools answer: “We are able.”
“OK then,” says Jesus, “you will drink that cup.” (At this point, a shiver is in order, because we hear about that cup every Good Friday. James was murdered by King Herod Agrippa I a decade after Jesus’ crucifixion, and although nobody knows for sure, some traditions hold that John, too, died a violent death.) Jesus tells them, “Your image of sitting at my right and left hand is completely the wrong image. If you really can’t operate in any way other than hierarchy, then you’d better flip that model upside down and start being Suffering Servants.”
In other words, it’s useless to play the game of who loves Jesus more. It’s useless to do good deeds because you expect a reward. It’s useless to try to be good so you can get into heaven. These attitudes are misplaced and selfish. Doing God’s work in the world is a labor of love, and love often leads to suffering. Jesus knew Isaiah’s prophecies. He knew that Isaiah spoke the truth when he wrote of the Suffering Servant: this is the only model of leadership that can dissuade people from trying to claw their way to the top, ignorant of those they step on. The Suffering Servant transforms the entire situation.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews also has servant leadership in mind when he refers to Melchizedek. Who was Melchizedek, anyway? Well, he was a minor character early in the Abraham saga, when Abraham was still Abram. Melchizedek was the king of Jerusalem, yet he brought Abram bread and wine and blessed him after a hard battle. For this humble show of kindness, he is immortalized in one of the Psalms, and later in this letter to the Hebrews. He is held up as a model for priesthood.
I think Isaiah may have had Melchizedek in mind when he wrote, but he took that servanthood idea further—not just humble stewardship, but also suffering. And then Jesus, reflecting on both Melchizedek and Isaiah, went even further, embracing death on a cross rather than desire for power—even power for positive change. Jesus could have been a political revolutionary and accomplished wonderful things for the Jews, but instead, he took on a much more powerful, long-term work for the entire world, a labor of love that could not begin to happen without deep suffering.
So who is the Suffering Servant? It may seem that we’ve established him to be Jesus. That is the standard Christian answer, and I won’t tell you it’s wrong. But I do wonder what good it would do for Isaiah to predict the coming of a suffering savior 800 years in the future. Isn’t that a little like telling a grieving person, “It’ll all be OK. The pain will fade with time”? That may be true, but because it’s unhelpful in the moment, it’s total nonsense!
So I won’t stand here and tell you, “The Suffering Servant is Jesus,” and leave it at that. Instead, I want to suggest that the Suffering Servant is Anne, a girl who wrote in her diary that she loved God and humanity with her whole heart … and then she died in a concentration camp. The Suffering Servant is Malala, a 14-year-old Pakistani blogger who recently was shot in the head by the Taliban because her hunger for learning is a threat to their oppressive way of life. The Suffering Servant is Matthew, a young man who was lynched for being gay, but who has inspired many in our country to change their hearts. Elders with Alzheimer’s are Suffering Servants, as are couples who have suffered miscarriages, and people who have been flooded and the foreclosed, and people who have been downsized and indebted. And yes, the Suffering Servant is a man who taught us to love each other, who healed us and blessed us and fed us, and whom we executed as a criminal. These are the suffering servants of God. These are the people who have become prophets by what they have experienced. And if you really must imagine seats to the right and left of God, then these Suffering Servants are the people you must place in them.
Have you been a Suffering Servant, enduring seemingly never-ending difficulties and wondering when things might finally get better? It’s hard for me to stand here as an outsider and say something helpful to you. It would be hypocritical of me to pat you on the shoulder and say, “There, there … I know how you feel.” I don’t know how you feel, because I’m not you.
But our faith tells us that Jesus is an insider. Because Jesus suffered, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer does know how we feel. The medieval mystic Julian of Norwich wrote, “Between us and God there is no between.” In coming close to us, closer even than we are to ourselves, God has chosen to take on our pain and suffering. God suffers right along with us. And Jesus is the sign that this is the case, that there is no place too impure, scary, or painful for God to tread.
If that’s true, if God is with us in our suffering, then can the suffering be needless? I don’t know. Let’s pray not. Let’s pray that every sharp twinge, every burrowing ache, every hollow pit of despair is carved out of God, the God who is infinite and eternal and therefore cannot be depleted. When we can’t go on, let’s pray that God can, and that God will raise us up from our suffering and reveal to us a world so shot through with joy that we cannot yet imagine it. Amen.