Sermon for October 14, 2018: Suffering? Seek God (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Aug 14

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Recently, someone asked me how much time I spend in hospitals. I responded that I can go a whole month without needing to make a hospital visit, and then I will have an entire week without a day that I don’t go to a hospital. Recent weeks at Grace have been more of the latter. Several of our parishioners have been injured, diagnosed with serious illness, or developed serious family concerns. Folks have been suffering, and I have attempted to be with them in their suffering as much as I can. I am not the only one. One of the great blessings of Grace Martinez is our desire and ability to assist and comfort those who are in need of it. From taking casseroles to people who are housebound to putting together a last-minute dinner for thirty residents at Contra Costa Interfaith Housing; our parishioners are ready and willing to be with those who suffer, as hard as that is.

One of the most frequent queries I get is, “If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and loves each of us individually and desperately, then why does God allow us to suffer”? We are not the first human beings to ask that question. It is what the book of Job is about. In last week’s scripture, we witnessed God and the Satan set up a trial of humanity. Job, being a righteous man of God, would have every, single blessing taken away from him. The Satan was betting that when he was at his lowest and emptiest, Job would curse God. God maintained that Job wouldn’t – that Job was a true believer, a man of integrity. Today we meet Job in the midst of his suffering. He has lost his family, his livelihood, his property, and his health. His friends have been questioning and mocking him. He has nothing left – nothing but his faith in God – and he can’t find God either. “Oh that I knew where I might find him…I would lay my case before him and…he would give heed to me.” Job wants to find God so he can argue with him. Some of us might consider this a bad idea. We have been taught that the path to salvation and the mark of a true believer is not to argue– to simply do what we are told without questioning it, and definitely without talking to God about it.

Job’s lament, and the lament of the writer of today’s psalm, suggests this might not be the case. Our Hebrew scripture indicates that Job’s “legitimate protest against God”[1] is not only okay but “is an act of deep faith – deeper, perhaps, than a passive acceptance of whatever happens as God’s will, or a carefully articulated theological rationalization for why things are. After all, does not God in the end vindicate Job’s speech, and castigate Job’s friends for not speaking rightly about God”?[2] Remember: Job’s complaint is not that he is suffering, but that he doesn’t feel God’s presence. Perhaps, then, Job’s most consistent and powerful act of faith is not the belief that God will take away his suffering, but that God is with him in it.

God’s presence is also the one thing that the author of Psalm 22 asks for. His plaintive cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” is not a request to be saved, but to be heard. In the fifteen verses of the psalm that we recited, only one is an actual petition: “Be not far from me.” The psalmist knows his own faults and those of his enemies. He is afraid. He is in despair. He wants to be heard.

Yesterday we held a service for healing for victims of sexual assault and abuse. The purpose of the gathering was to create a safe space where individuals who had been deeply injured in horrendous ways could share their suffering – with God and with one another. Both ancient scripture and modern psychology tell us that sharing our pain can pave the road for its healing. “Shared suffering connects us to a larger world at the very time we are most at risk to feel isolated and alone. We are able to tap into the hope for healing and resurrection that resides in the life of that community.”[3]

It also helps us to live authentically with one another. Today’s epistle tells us that the word of God is not some dead document about unidentifiable ancient people. It is “living and active,” influencing everyone it touches throughout the long history of God’s relationship to humankind- from its beginning to today. Sometimes our interactions with scripture are not easy. That’s because scripture is designed not only to comfort the afflicted, but to afflict the comfortable.[4] This is what today’s Gospel story is about. In this famous parable, Jesus is confronted by a man who asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. The gospel writer makes it clear that the questioner is a good man, one who has kept the Ten Commandments, one whom Jesus loves. “You lack one thing,” Jesus tells him, “go, sell everything you own and give the money to the poor.” Can you imagine if Jesus appeared today and asked each of us to do the same? Would we do it – or would we, like that man, go away shocked and grieving?

Note that Jesus does not say that wealthy people cannot enter the kingdom of God; he just says it will be very hard for them to do so. Why? - because money – its acquisition, maintenance, and the lack of it- is tremendously distracting. It is impossible to love our God with our whole heart and our neighbor as ourselves if we spend all of our time thinking about money. In our society, we are taught to equate money with safety, power, and intelligence. The myth of “the self-made man” – the individual who started with nothing and, through sheer willpower and craftiness, “pulled himself up by his bootstraps” is powerful in this country – powerful and almost always false. It also represents one of the issues that Jesus was getting to when he spoke to the rich man: “wealth is dangerous to our salvation because it prompts us to rely on ourselves rather than God.”[5] When his disciples protest that they have left everything for him, Jesus tells them that they will be rewarded, but that that doesn’t mean that they will be powerful or important in the age to come, for “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Like his criticism of the wealthy, “Jesus questions those who pride themselves on their virtue and faith. Even honestly sought virtue and faith are dangerous, because they also prompt us to rely on ourselves rather than God. We are saved only when we stop worrying about our salvation and turn our attention to God and neighbor.”[6]

Human wealth and human power are not demonstrations of God’s favor. The ancient (and, sadly, still existing) belief that “things go well for the good… and poorly for the bad”[7] is directly contradicted by Jesus’s response when he is asked who can be saved. Those who believe in God, he tells his disciples. It is God alone we must seek- God we must cry out for in need – God we must have faith in- God who will hear us and answer, as he does Job and the psalmist. We do not need to question that this is so; God has proven it in the person of Jesus Christ, who suffered as we do so that he could always, always be present to us in our suffering. It is not wrong to pray for healing, for peace, and for life, but it is wrong to forget where those come from. All healing, all grace, and all comfort come from God. Seek God first and everything you need will follow. AMEN.

[1]Paul E. Captez, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 150.

[2]J.S. Randolph Harris, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 151.

[3]Kathleen Bostrom, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L