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July 18, 2016, 7:45 AM

The Question of Suffering

2 Corinthians 1:3-7, CEB, revised
May the God and Parent of our Lord Jesus Christ be blessed! God is the compassionate Parent and God of all comfort. God is the one who comforts us in all our trouble so that we can comfort other people who are in every kind of trouble. We offer the same comfort that we ourselves received from God. That is because we receive so much comfort through Christ in the same way that we share so many of Christ’s sufferings. So if we have trouble, it is to bring you comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is to bring you comfort from the experience of endurance while you go through the same sufferings that we also suffer. Our hope for you is certain, because we know that as you are partners in suffering, so also you are partners in comfort.
Luke 13:1-8, CEB
Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. He replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans?  No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.  What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem?  No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”
Jesus told this parable: “A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none.  He said to his gardener, ‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?’  The gardener responded, ‘Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer.
The Question of Suffering
One of the best movies of the 1980s came out in 1987 and took the world by storm. Even today it continues to be popular and its quotes have made it to meme status. (A meme is a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc. that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by Internet users. It is a way to express yourself, often humorously). Let me name some of the famous characters in the movie and see if you can guess it. You might guess it with just one: Inigo Montoya…Princess Buttercup…Westley…Fezzik.  Yes, The Princess Bride. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it—a beautiful fantasy story that is full of humor and a wonderful understanding of love. The Princess Bride has hundreds of wonderfully quotable lines and scenes, but one in particular came to my mind when contemplating the question, and the nature, of suffering—and it doesn’t involve the Pit of Despair.
In an early scene, the world famous swordsman, Inigo Montoya, is helping to kidnap Princess Buttercup and to frame a neighboring kingdom to start a war. The kidnappers are being pursued by a mysterious man in black. Montoya is commanded to kill the man in black with his superb sword skills.  A battle ensues between Montoya and the Man in Black, with tons of witty banter, but in the end the mysterious Man in Black defeats Inigo Montoya. As Montoya kneels in the dirt, ready to meet his fate, a final dialogue ensues—Montoya asks, “Who are you?” The man responds, “No one of consequence.” Montoya, “I must know…” The Man responds point blank, “Get used to disappointment.” Montoya shrugs, “okay.” And then the Man in Black knocks him out. “Get used to disappointment.”
We humans want suffering and evil to be an answerable question. “Why do people suffer?” “Why horrendous acts of violence like in Nice?” “Why do the innocent suffer?” “If God is loving and all powerful, why doesn’t God stop the suffering?” There are other variations but the question is essentially the same—where does suffering come from and why doesn’t God stop it? Somewhere in the 66 books of our bible there must be some answer, right? What does the bible say? Essentially…I’m very sorry…the bible says that we cannot know, get used to disappointment. Okay? There…an easy sermon after all.
All kidding aside, let us take a moment to look at what we can know from our scripture. Jesus addresses suffering and sin twice in the gospels, directly. Once in the Gospel of John, chapter 9, when encountering a man born blind, and in today’s reading from Luke, when addressing the two violent events in Jerusalem—the massacre by Pilate and the falling of the Tower of Siloam. Jesus comes right out and addresses a common held belief in his culture and time, that when bad things happened, when suffering occurred, it was punishment for wrongdoing. If you are suffering, you must have sinned. Jesus confronts this belief system directly—“Do you think those massacred by Pilate while they were worshiping were worst sinners?” “Do you think those crushed by the crumbling tower were worse wrong doers?” “No!” One would think this would be the opportune moment for Jesus to explain the mysteries of suffering. It isn’t punishment for sin, it’s because… But he doesn’t. Instead he uses this moment to challenge his listeners to examine their own lives and to give the gift of hope in the quirky fig tree parable.
Though Jesus doesn’t give us a succinct answer on suffering, this exchange between Jesus and the crowd does give us some insight. Jesus clearly states that suffering is not a punishment. He doesn’t say it is disconnected from sin, it is just not a punishment for sin. Sin is certainly involved in the first tragedy, Pilate ordered the slaughter of Galilean worshipers. Jesus makes it clear in his conversation with the crowd that God does not cause suffering, nor does God wish for suffering. But Jesus doesn’t give any further explanation.
This should not be totally new information to Jesus’ Jewish listeners. In the Hebrew Scriptures there is an entire book dedicated to suffering, evil, and God—the book of Job. In this book long parable, God and Satan make a bet—Satan believes that humans only respond to reward and punishment, and wants to prove this point. God knows otherwise and so accepts the bet. Job, a righteous and devout wealthy man, with tons of materials goods, a large family and many friends, becomes the object of this bet. Satan believes that if all Job’s “blessings” are removed, Job will turn away from God. So, Satan takes everything away—all Job’s children die, all his property is lost, even his health and well-being are robbed from him. He ends up sitting on a garbage heap in rags, covered in sores, with dogs licking his open wounds. Yuck. Most of this long parable is then taken up with Job’s “friends” trying to convince Job that his suffering is punishment for his sin, and Job’s insistence that he did nothing wrong. The parable ends with Job demanding that God account for his suffering, that God give Job an explanation and clear his name, so to speak, with his friends.
God’s response is to point out how beyond Job’s understanding the nature of the universe and the nature of God really is. God spends a few chapters pointing out the wonders of creation, the mysteries and unfathomableness of the universe. God gives Job a glimpse of how vast God is, how large the wonders of God’s creation are, and how small Job is.  Job responds, “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes (Job 42).” Job cannot wrap his head around God’s purpose and design in creation. And God was right, Job never turns away from God.
That is the crux of the problem of understanding suffering and evil, God’s wondrous purpose and design in creation and the created order. God created humankind as a unique creature in all creation. From the dust of the earth, from the stuff of the universe—atoms and molecules and star dust—God called into being these creatures with free will and free thought. God formed us in God’s own image, breathed into us the breath of God, and placed us on this little planet as God’s partner people. God didn’t create automatons, puppets that do exactly what they are programmed to do. God wanted relationship, an exchange of love and devotion. God wanted uniqueness, to watch the lives of these earth creatures, adama in Hebrew, unfold and grow and develop and hopefully, prayerfully choose relationship with God. But free will comes with risk. These lovely humans can live into their divine potential, live and grow and evolve and choose to live in communion with God, with one another and with all creation. But, these humans can also choose not to live that way. We are free to choose. We are free, with all the delights and all the consequences that brings. In the midst of our choices, God does move and nudge and seek to guide. God’s will is for all creation to live into the fullness of creation’s potential, for us to fully live into our God’ given image. God therefore operates within the creation God called into being in any way that will encourage us and all creation to live toward that potential.
Free will and free thought means a universe that provides challenges for growth and development. Can we even begin to fathom the consequences if God were to do as we pray and take away freedom for some? We can glimpse at the ripple effects of actions in the world, yet we should be able to admit readily that we cannot know all the ripples from each action. It is just beyond us. We never know all of the effects of what we do in the world. Nor can we know what the universal effects would be if God intervened in the ways we wish—if God ended cancer, what would the consequences be? What would have to vanish from creation? If God ended violence, would we still be free? Would God have to make us puppets? We cannot fathom the ripples and effects of these actions. We cannot begin to understand. We are all Job, seeking to know the mind of God.
This is a hard disappointment to ‘get used to.’ We feel so very lost in the face of such suffering as in Nice, France. We are cut to the core when a loved one hears that horrible word, ‘cancer.’ Or when we see the suffering in the eyes of a child. It is perfectly natural to be Job-like in those moments as well and raise our hands heavenward and demand a reason for such pain and loss.
Here is where Paul’s words to the Corinthians come in. Though Paul is speaking to them about the specific form of suffering that Christians were enduring at hands of the Roman Empire for being Christian, his assurances to the Corinthians are universal to all those who suffer. Paul reminds and promises that God is the God of all comfort, comforting us in the midst of trouble. But God doesn’t stop there. God pours God’s comfort upon us through the Spirit so that we too may be a comfort to one another and to a world filled with suffering. And our Compassionate and Comforting God seeks to work goodness in and through those situations of suffering, so many times through the hands of those who respond to suffering with actions of comfort and care.  Let us not respond to the disappointment of no simple and ready answer to the question of suffering, but let us respond by embodying the example given to us in the Great Comforter, sent as God among us. Let us be peacemakers. Let us be justice-seekers. Let us offer comfort to those who suffer. Let us shine with the light of Christ. Amen.
Personal Reflection:
The College of Bishops for the Northeastern Jurisdiction (Maryland/West Virginia up through Main) of the United Methodist Church challenged all of us in this region to ask ourselves these questions in response to the acts of violence in our world in these recent days.
  1. How will you be a peacemaker in the midst of the storms of violence and destruction?
  2. How can you be a peacemaker and at the same time work for justice?
  3. What can you do to help develop a sense of well-being and harmony in your life, in the lives of neighbors, strangers, friends, and communities?
  4. What social problems move you to want to make a difference by building bridges, making connections, valuing people? 

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