Proper 11 (July 17-23)
Texts: Romans 8:12-25;
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
WADING INTO THE DEEP WATER: THE MYSTERY OF SUFFERING
I invite you to wade a bit further into the deep water with me today. Last week, (1) reflecting on the Parable of the Sower, we began wading into the deep water of the mystery of suffering. We found that Jesus spoke forthrightly about being bad soil. He tells us directly. But he doesn’t say much about what it means to be good soil. He says only that the good soil yields a great deal — a hundredfold, etc. But we sought to see the various soils in the characters of the Gospel stories, and we reached a conclusion that the good soil seems to be the times and places of suffering in our lives. When Jesus applauds strong faith, it is invariably to a person who is suffering and who reaches out for help in faith — like the nameless hemorrhaging woman who simply seeks to touch Jesus’ cloak to be healed. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus begins and ends his teaching with people who are suffering. He begins with the Beatitudes, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourning,’ and so forth. And he ends with the Parable of Sheep and Goats, praising those who seek to be with and to help the suffering, ‘I was hungry and you gave me to eat, thirsty and you gave me to drink. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
In a sense, Jesus’ parables tell us how not to react when suffering comes into our lives. The rocky soil of last week’s parable are those who initially respond positively to Jesus but then run away when the going gets tough, when Jesus himself enters into his Passion of suffering. Today’s parable shows us the blame game. Something bad gets sown into our lives and we want to weed it out. We play the blame game of focusing on the bad elements, the bad people in our lives, seeking to rid ourselves of them. But Jesus’ parable warns us that that generally ends up bad. We end up weeding out some good with the bad. Think of our national response to 9-11, for example. It was so easy to blame Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Ten years later, we finally caught bin Laden. But we ask ourselves: how many thousands of innocent people have died in the meantime? ‘Collateral damage,’ we call it. Today’s parable warns us about ‘collateral damage.’
But I don’t want to talk about the bad responses to suffering this morning. I want to talk further about how times of suffering can be the good soil of faith in our lives. In his book Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words, Brian McLaren maps out four seasons in our spiritual lives and assigns three simple words of prayer to each. The seasons are Simplicity, Complexity, Perplexity, and Harmony. I’d like to draw a bit this morning from the Season of Complexity, which is the first season of strengthening in our faith lives of prayer. And the simple word that should come to us when we are faced with a time of suffering is, “Help!” McLaren writes,
When we call out for help, we are bound more powerfully to God through our needs and weaknesses, our unfulfilled hopes and dreams, and our anxieties and problems than we ever could have been through our joys, successes, and strengths alone. Because this practice involves expanding our resource base beyond our own limited capacities, we can call it expansion. Because it involves making a plea to God for help, we can call it petition as well. Whatever we call it, help represents a move from self-reliance to God-reliance, and that’s a step in the right direction. (2)
We saw that just a couple weeks ago, didn’t we? Our brother Ted Olsen suffered a stroke, and his son Peter stood up the following Sunday in church to recognize and give thanks for the all help that had already come. Suffering a stroke is definitely a time of suffering, but can you see how it can also be an occasion for the good soil of faith? It can bring families together in love to help one another, not just blood families but also faith families. Also, it can bring about our reaching out to God in faith — which can end up being the same thing. When we reach out to God, we reach out to God’s family in faith. We receive help in love. Sixteen of our young people are on their way to Red Lake, MN, as we speak, seeking an experience of helping one another in love, in being God’s family. (3)
The apostle Paul begins this section of Romans in chapter 5 by celebrating our sufferings, because they produce in us endurance, which in turn produces character, which in turn produces hope, which in turn makes us receptive to the outpouring of God’s love into our hearts (Rom. 5:3-5). This morning, here in chapter 8, he returns to the subject of suffering in a big way. He expands the scope to not only the times of suffering in our lives as individuals but to the suffering of the whole creation. And Paul even implies that suffering was built into creation, “subjected to futility,” he says, in the hope that someday it will reach a glory of harmony that we can’t imagine, yet we hope for in faith. In the meantime, the suffering brings us together in love, helping one another, cultivating the good soil of faith.
There are days, of course, when we wish there could be some other system. (4) We wish there could be a way of developing patience without delay, courage without danger, forgiveness without offense, generosity without need, endurance without fatigue, persistence without obstacles, virtue without temptation, and strong love without hard-to-love people. But it turns out that there is no other way. The Creator has created the right kind of universe to produce these beautiful qualities in us creatures. And among these beautiful qualities is interdependence — the ability to reach out beyond ourselves, to ask for help from others and from God, and to offer help as we are able. The whole shebang is rigged for mutuality, for vital connection.
As St. Paul seems to imply, by bringing in the whole creation, we might think about the theory of evolution along these lines. If survival were easy, species wouldn’t develop new adaptive features. If survival were stress-free, there wouldn’t be 20,000 species of butterflies, 300 species of turtles, or 18,937 species of birds (at last count). In fact, there would be no butterflies, turtles, or birds at all, because it was stress, struggle, challenge, and change that prompted the first living things to diversify, specialize, adapt, and develop into the wonders that surround us and include us now. Seen in this light, evolution isn’t a grim theory of “survival of the fittest.” Rather, in the light of love, the planet can be seen as a veritable laboratory for innovations in beauty and diversity, fitness and adaptability, complexity and harmony. It renders the earth a studio for the creative development of interdependence in ecosystems or societies of life. Put beauty, diversity, complexity, and harmonious interdependence together and you have something very close to the biblical concepts of “glory” and shalom.
So both science and faith tell us that we find ourselves in a universe whose preset conditions challenge us to ongoing growth, development, and connection. The cry for help, I propose, is what keeps us in the game. When we cry out for help, we reach out for resources and capacities we don’t yet have. We dare to desire strength sufficient to meet life’s challenges, instead of wishing for the challenges to shrink to our current levels of capacity. By crying help, we choose expansion rather than contraction, advance rather than retreat, healing rather than hurting others.
And the rest of creation is counting on us human beings, who are made in God’s image, to lead the way in a harmonious coming together to help one another. Often, when I ask young people what they are studying in college, I hear about new avenues of study like environmental engineering. Our young people are studying the ways in which, as St. Paul says, the children of God are helping the rest of creation to God’s harmonious intentions.
Let’s conclude with the model for faith, our Lord himself, who chose to take on suffering. Shortly before his arrest, he is at the most stressful moment of his life, and he knows that one fork in the road will take him to even greater agony: torture, mockery, rejection, crucifixion, and death. So he goes to a garden and cries out in petition: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
Simple words, a simple petition, but unfathomably deep: “I don’t want to drink this cup of poison. I don’t want to throw myself into a raging current that will dash me upon the rocks of human ignorance, hatred, cruelty, and violence. I don’t want my thirty-three years of life and my three years of ministry to end like this — sweat, whips, bruises, welts, death. But if doing so will unleash new possibilities for good, possibilities that you, God, desire to be unleashed in the world, then I will drink the cup and expand to meet the challenge.”
Was Jesus’s prayer answered? No and yes. The first half wasn’t. God did not adjust the world to make Jesus’s life more comfortable. But the second half was. God’s will was done, and the consequences of Jesus’s surrender to God’s will that night continue to spread across time and space like ripples across a pond. Jesus did not receive a reprieve, a pass, a “get out of suffering free” card. Nor did he take the path of independence, shutting God out and choosing his own will instead. No, in weakness, in vulnerability, from the edge of the abyss, he reached out to God for help. And he received the strength to go forward and drink the cup of suffering. And three days later he received the new life that begins creation anew, unleashing the spirit we need to learn to help one another. Let us eat and drink to that cup of suffering which brings us the new life of helping one another in love. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, July 17, 2011
1. See the sermon from July 10, 2011, “The Good Soil of Suffering.”
2. Brian McLaren, Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words [San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011], page 104.
3. Sixteen high school youth and five adult chaperones were headed to the Indian Reservation in Red Lake, MN, to a Group Workcamp.
4. The remainder of this sermon are mostly words from Brian McLaren’s book (Ibid.), pages 107-8, 109-10, edited slightly to fit my sermon.