sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24B, October 21, 2018
It feels weird to go from our Celebration of New and Mutual Ministry on Thursday night—and the first public playing of our new organ—and the celebration that followed at Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club—to this set of readings today. It is good to celebrate and make merry. Yet it’s also true that, as a mentor of mine used to put it: “The symbol of Christianity is a cross, not a smiley face.” So naturally, today’s readings are about pain and suffering. It’s like, “OK, everyone, the party’s over—back to work.”
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 and theorize about pain logically: “Well, 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 this to someone who is actually in pain? I wouldn’t. No matter your suffering, you can be certain that I haven’t suffered in the same way you have.
So what is the meaning of suffering? Or is it possible that our suffering is meaningless? In our first reading today, we heard the Prophet Isaiah speak about a poetic biblical figure commonly called the Suffering Servant. Listen to the contemporary paraphrase from The Message by Eugene Peterson:
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.
It’s no wonder that the first Christians looked at Isaiah’s writing and said, “A-ha! That’s Jesus he’s talking about.” And so, with this passage always in the background, various theologies began to form about the purpose and meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection. It has become commonplace among Christians, then, to assume that Isaiah was predicting the coming of Jesus some 800 years later, but let’s not begin with that assumption. Let’s wonder for 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: “Yes! We’re your men.”
“OK then,” says Jesus, “you will drink that cup.” (At this point, a shiver is in order, because we hear about that cup every year on Good Friday. A decade after that, King Herod Agrippa I ordered the murder of James, 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 think this is a contest, then you’d better stop racing to the top and start racing to the bottom. You’d better become Suffering Servants.”
In other words, it’s useless to play the game of who loves Jesus more, or to do good deeds expecting a reward. It’s useless to try to be good so you can get into heaven. These intentions are misplaced and shortsighted. Doing God’s work in the world is a labor of love, and when we love others, we are willing to suffer for them. Jesus knew that Isaiah spoke the truth: the Suffering Servant is the only role model who 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 servanthood in mind when he refers to Melchizedek. Who was Melchizedek, anyway? Well, he was a minor character early in the Book of Genesis. Melchizedek was the king of Jerusalem—in fact, his name means “righteous king”—yet he brought Abram bread and wine and blessed him after a hard battle. In gratitude, Abram gave Melchizedek one tenth—a tithe—of all he had. Melchizedek is immortalized in one of the Psalms, and later in this letter to the Hebrews. He is held up as a model for priesthood, a model to which the author compares Jesus, our “great high priest.”
I think Isaiah may also have had Melchizedek in mind, but he took that servanthood idea further—not just humble, mutual stewardship, but also suffering. And then Jesus, reflecting on both Melchizedek and Isaiah, went even further, embracing death instead of power—even constructive power. Jesus could have been a political revolutionary and accomplished wonderful things for his own people, but instead, he took on a much more powerful, long-term work for the entire world, a labor of love that walked right through suffering and transformed the entire situation.
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 so many centuries in the future. Isn’t that a little like telling a grieving person, “It’ll all be OK”? In the same way, I won’t just stand here and tell you, “The Suffering Servant was Jesus 2000 years ago,” 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 Matthew, a young man who was lynched for being gay, but who has inspired many in our country to change their hearts, and who, 20 years after his death, will finally be interred in the National Cathedral. The Suffering Servant is Malala, a teenage Pakistani blogger who was shot in the head by the Taliban because her hunger for learning was a threat to their evil ideology. The Suffering Servant is a young Baptist pastor marching for freedom, and an unlikely Salvadoran archbishop preaching liberation. The Suffering Servant is an asylum seeker whose children are kidnapped by the American government, and a courageous woman who calls her attacker to honesty. Elders in failing health and their caregivers are Suffering Servants, and women who miscarry, and children shot and traumatized in their schools, and the flooded and foreclosed on, and the downsized and indebted and disenfranchised.
And yes, the Suffering Servant is a man who taught us to love one another, 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 the experiences that they endured, and by their obedience to the call of love. And if you really must imagine seats to the right and left of Jesus, then these Suffering Servants are the people you must place in them.
Have you been a Suffering Servant, enduring trial after trial 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 chooses to take on our pain and suffering.
If that’s true—if God is with us in our suffering—then can any suffering be meaningless? I don’t know. I pray not. I 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, I 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.