Pentecost – Proper 15
Jeremiah 23: 23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11: 29 – 12:2; Luke 12: 49-56
THE REV. JAMES M.L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Often people will come to me with questions of faith that to them are insurmountable. Sometimes really tough questions. Questions about God and fairness. I recall one time when a person hoping I would have an answer to this particular question asked me this: “Where was the God of love and mercy during the holocaust when so many innocent people perished?” Sometimes there are questions where silence is the only is the only answer. I sensed this person wanted more, and so I shared with them a true story about how a group of rabbis imprisoned at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp asked the same question. These rabbis, along with so many others were forced to walk into the concentration camp at Auschwitz through the main entrance gate underneath a giant metal sign which read: “arbeit macht frei” translated into English: work sets you free.
These rabbis, forced to work in a camp where no amount of work would ever set them free, began a dialog amongst each other as they witnessed their brothers and sisters disappearing daily, never to be seen again. They knew, deep down, how it would end for them. The rabbi’s conversations grew in their depth and in their intensity, culminating into a trial, a trial where the rabbis placed God as the defendant. Tired of trying to defend God, tired of trying to speak for God, trying to make sense of a senseless situation, the rabbis finally threw their arms into the air and decided they would let God speak. They would let God answer the question so many of them desperately tried to do: where the hell was God in the midst of all this unjust suffering?
The trial at Auschwitz continued for several days, and the outcome of the trial was that the rabbis found God guilty on all accounts. From the perspective of a group of rabbis interned at a Nazi death camp, God was judged to be unfaithful to the promises God had made to the Hebrew people centuries ago. There was no way, in the midst of the suffering they witnessed day in and day out, that these rabbis could in their heart of hearts believe that God was loving and merciful.
The guilty verdict issued, the rabbis back to their daily routine of forced labor and diminishing rations, the rabbis wondered what they would do next. What would they do? They and their guilty God? They did what rabbis do. They said their prayers. They prayed to God, guilty or not. Why? Why pray? I suspect they did this because deep down they knew something about God’s nature, something about who God is that many of us have forgotten. They knew that whether God was in fact guilty or not, the God to whom they prayed was a God who suffered and suffers still.
The idea of a suffering God is as wildly unpopular to us today, as it was when Jesus walked the earth some two thousand years ago. In our culture today, we associate suffering with weakness and vulnerability. We do whatever we can to avoid the sting of suffering in our life. For many of us, our childhood concept of God was a strong, confidant, authoritarian, and likely patriarchal figure in our lives. That image sustains us through our childhood, but as we grow older, that image of the strong “God” begins to crumble, and we see in its place not a confident deity, but penniless rabbi dying on a cross.
It’s embarrassing. It was during Jesus’ life for sure. When he proclaimed publically that he was God’s chosen, a messiah, people couldn’t believe him, because they looked at him and nothing about him fit their idea of what God should be. They expected a king who would be strong and mighty, who would free Israel from Roman rule. Instead they got a young rabbi who hung out with the outsiders, and who had no intention of any military insurrection against Rome.
For this self-proclaimed messiah, God’s chosen, life ended as a public relations disaster. He died a criminal’s death on a cross, his friends deserted him, and from an outsider’s perspective it appeared that his life was a failure. Except that it wasn’t.
The book of Hebrews says this morning “[f]or the joy that was set before him Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame.” Jesus embraced suffering with joy. How many of us could say that we have ever joyfully suffered, let alone even thought it a possibility? If God is a suffering God, as the rabbis at Auschwitz knew, then that means that we no longer need to be afraid of the inevitable suffering we encounter in our lives.
The gift of suffering is that our suffering connects us to God in ways words simply cannot describe. I know this to be factually true because I have heard from so many people in hospital rooms, assisted living homes, and on the streets who clearly are suffering, and yet they tell me they are blessed. And they tell me they know God is with them. It is the dying, the sick, the homeless, who become our saints, our icons, pointing out to us through their suffering that they are connected to God in a way our culture of acquisition, leisure, and ownership cannot and will not ever comprehend.
The model of the life of the Buddha and the life of Jesus was to turn toward, not way from, suffering. The closer we come to it, the more we are convinced that we are loved with a love that is more dependable than even our own, prized more highly than ever we could prize ourselves, so that like Jesus we can be full of joy, strongly invulnerable in the midst of our vulnerability.
People still come to me with questions about God that honestly are unanswerable. I admit that me explanation that “God suffers, too” is not very helpful to a person undergoing a crisis. Or is it? For the rabbis at Auschwitz, it was enough for them to say that even though God was guilty, they never doubted God’s presence with them. That’s why they prayed after the trial. For those rabbis, it was God’s suffering alongside them that preserved their faith.
This is not a wildly popular message, but neither is what we hear from the Bible today. These are hard, difficult truths to receive. And yet for any of us who has walked through the dark night of the soul, we know this is true. Through God’s strength, not ours, we can turn our faces towards suffering, we can befriend it, invite into our lives rather than push it away.
Fear not. God walks with you, suffers beside you, and carries you through darkness into light. AMEN.