“How do we Know what is God’s Will when Someone is Suffering”
a sermon based upon Matthew 9:9-13
While the corona-virus’ mandated “self-quarantine” efforts keep us apart, I get the feeling that we are also “pulling together” as a community. (!) For one thing, the health crisis has effectively stalled the rancor and partisanship of the Presidential campaign, so that the relentlessly divisive American political polarization has taken back-seat in the daily news cycle. That in itself may help us “pull together”. We’re all in this thing together!
I appreciate the “Everyday Faith” column that Julie Riddle (reporter for The Alpena News and wife of a Rogers City pastor) wrote for Easter -- two weeks ago -- and I’d like to share it with you this morning before we get into the details of looking for God’s Will in the midst of suffering. Julie Riddle wrote (and I quote):
“A virus has taken away the Easter that should be. It’s not fair, the heart cries. All of this. All of the change. All of the loss. The staying home. The looming fear. The masks. The deaths. (!)
“If ever we needed Easter, it’s now. Now, with homes and hearts besieged with anxiety. We need anticipation and hope, and a day being what it ought to be. We need promises of a new life. We need death to be broken. We need hugs and music and lilies. …
“There’s a picture we hold in our heads,” she writes, “of Life, as it should be. If all were right, if life were fair, it would be like such-&-such. The sun would shine; our jobs’d be secure; our parents & children would be safe. Our hams would never burn & our lilies would smell like resurrection.
“It’s not like such-&-such for most of us now – not when the world is topsy-turvy and the rules have all changed. … There’s always instability, to a greater or lesser degree. Fear and anxiety are always lurking, ready to jump into our lives whenever there is a hole to fill. Days are gloomy, times are tough, projects and people are imperfect.
“We need hope today,” Julie Riddle wrote in The Alpena News, “And we need it every day. …
“We need reassurance in this troubled time, and we need it in every other time, too. During tough days ahead, as now, as in all tough days of the past, there has been, there is, there will be Hope. Reassurance. A place to lean. … The whole of humanity,” she says, “is still extended a hand to which to cling, when the sun shines… and when it rains. I know that my Redeemer lives. I know that I’m not alone, even when times are tough. I know that Someone loves me, enough to die for me, even though I am far from perfect.
“Everything is different,” writes Julie Riddle, “but nothing has changed. Alleluia.”
Yes, it does feel like everything has changed (doesn’t it?) since the shut-down of our economy and the necessary isolation of people due to “social distancing”. We miss hand-shakes and eating out. We miss face-to-face conversations and we regret having to resort instead to “virtual” contact over Facebook, Internet emails, Skype-ing and Zoom meetings. I find it tedious & un-real this “virtual” worship, virtual reality.
However, in as much as there are no other options until the government guidelines are lifted, and the fear of pandemic plague has passed, we turn to other media for our messages and to find meaning. The medium of newspaper columnists, like Julie Riddle and others -- and of blogs & news-feeds that are captured on computer -- become our dialog partners in this new “stay-at-home” (isolation-inducing) social setting.
One of my friends recently sent me a short essay and he asked for my feedback. The author is well-traveled, well-educated, a faithful man, whom I hold in high regard. His musings helped point me to the topic that I intend to address in this morning’s sermon: How do we know what is God’s Will when we are in the midst of suffering?
The friend who wrote to me is the Rev. Kit Wilke, former Minister of the UCC church in Lakewood, California. Kit was our neighbor in Long Beach and we did many an event together – youth camps at Pilgrim Pines, interfaith services, and Kit produced some of the Powerpoint songs that we used here in “Underground Church”. His Dad, Harold Wilke, had been a Minister, too, even though he had been born without arms. He took Kit to hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the Washington Mall when he delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech. Rev. Wilke was present when the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law. A great UCC family!
My friend Kit Wilke, a social activist minister and compassionate pastor, had to take early retirement when he became disabled by a mugger who beat him savagely. Despite some brain damage and other physical disabilities, Kit Wilke still has a brilliant theological mind and he has been writing from his home. I recently received this from Kit Wilke:
What I have been trying to write about for the last two-plus years is the “conversion of our culture” from one where our rules and definitions… about a complete and unchangeable reality given to us by God … [a culture in which people] tend to believe God’s laws are set and immutable – to a [more] fluid, potentially changeable reality based on the inclusion of a variety of viewpoints and individual experiences, all tested through repetition and the process of science.
Kit realizes that the “rules and definitions -- and the names of our reality -- are handed down (and then cast in stone) based on the stories we tell (in places like the Bible or the Koran) about a complete and un-changeable reality given to us by God!” He points, for example, to five of the six Supreme Court justices who are Catholic, as ones who believe “God’s laws are set and immutable.” To contradict ideas like that, among people who wield considerable political power in America, will not be easy!
Kit Wilke hopes that, as we include a variety of viewpoints and individual experiences, our worldview will be continually re-defined, and in the process, it will become less chaotic (and somewhat less dangerous) as it becomes more inclusive of a variety of perspectives and each perspective is tested by science. (I think this would be a nice outcome!)
“Ultimately,” writes Kit, “this rests on the profound belief that you can get closer to reality because the chaos of reality is itself God.” This is a profound proposition: the chaos of reality is itself God. (Live with that idea.)
Kit goes on to say: “We can approach the understanding we make of the chaos because – dangerous and deadly as that chaos appears – it is that chaos which created us and loves us.” This second proposal -- that it is that chaos which created us and loves us” -- is almost as hard to grasp as the first – that the chaos of reality is itself God – but it makes sense as a syllogism, when Kit concludes: “God is the reality that loves us.”
“Part of the reason that Christ’s crucifixion and Christian martyrdom are so important,” writes Rev. Wilke, “is that – even when our current formulation of the chaos chooses to kill us – God is still the reality that loves us enough that we can trust God and dare to seek deeper under-standing. Phew!” Kit encourages us (in this time of uncertainty and fear, this time of social isolation and financial free-fall) to embrace the chaos, even the deadly and dangerous parts, because it is that chaos which created us and loves us” -- because the chaos of reality is itself God.
Kit’s is a bold response to the question I raise in my sermon title: “How do we know what is God’s Will when someone is suffering?” Embrace the chaos, even the deadly and dangerous parts, because it is that chaos which created us and loves us -- because the chaos of reality is itself God. This novel theological approach deserves consideration. (!)
Let me let you in on why this topic concerns me so much… The question about God’s presence (or absence) in times of suffering began for me in earnest in the spring of 1990 when I preached the funeral for a senior high student member of my church -- a handsome surfer-dude -- who had hanged himself at home. (!) Somehow I had to find words to comfort and to guide an overflow crowd of hurting teenagers from his high school and bewildered adults in my church. They never saw it coming!
30 years have passed, and I’m still on the search for what it takes to make sense of suffering and to provide some measure of comfort to my members. The current global coronavirus epidemic and all its social & economic dislocations only brings the matter to the foreground.
Back in 1994, my former Church secretary in Torrance, Beth Elwood (and her husband Larry), had only recently moved to Redondo Beach and had begun to attend Seaside Church. Larry’s mother back in Chicago had a frontal lobe bleed, leaving her between some reality and (mostly) a life of introspection for six months. Our congregation held her, and Larry, in our prayers as he frequently had to fly home to check on her condition.
Her hospitalization turned into a coma for several weeks, and then back to a perpetual state of apparent non-pain yet non-responsiveness and no ability to eat. (Larry had to fly back and forth from California to Chicago to tend to his mother’s situation.) There was a point where Hospice was ready to assist Larry’s mother to the end, but then she returned to a state where she would eat… but still had no recognition of others. This went on for a full year until she passed into a coma and slipped away.
The suffering in a situation like that was not so much in the comtose patient, who was largely unresponsive and without apparent pain, but in Larry as he lived through it with her. Suffering is the conscious enduring of an affliction. It came upon Larry in many ways, manifesting itself as a complete change in lifestyle, relationships, and personal assessments of how now to express love, attention, help, as well as attend to one’s on-going personal life. Concerns such as trusts, wills, & financial management became more urgent; things once avoided suddenly took primary focus. Care centers are not conveniently located, so you are torn between your regular work life and the desire/need/obligation to visit regularly. But, as in Larry’s case, “regularly” does not happen. The distances are too great, or time and money are in short supply.
“You suffer from not knowing what is lucent to the patient and what is not,” Larry told me, “what is important to them and what really makes no difference.
When the end finally came, a different kind of suffering comes. Feeling relief for the coming of death… and guilt for having those feelings! There’s the unrecoverable disconnection from his mother’s group of friends and from Larry, her only child. Larry told me (since I was working on the theme of suffering for my doctoral paper) that he wondered whether or not they handled the entire dilemma the way God would have wanted? He said to me: “It’s hard to know what God’s will is under these circumstances.” Hence, the title of this sermon. It was at that time that Larry Elwood wrote the words of the prayer that we used this morning.
In that old American hymn “Amazing Grace” we sing: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come.” It is an admission that bad things happen to people all the time and that suffering is never far from us. We may not ourselves be struggling with an affliction just now -- I mean, for most of us the COVID19 virus has passed us by (Thank God!) and unemployment doesn’t really matter much since we are on pensions and Social Security -- but it is very likely that another member of our family or someone else we know is affected. (!) When we combine all the forms of pain and anguish, poverty and disease, accidents and catastrophes, violent conflicts and injustices, tragic and premature death, emotional distress and spiritual despair, in addition to all the other ills that may violate one’s body, mind, and soul, I suspect that everyone on earth has been touched (if not tormented!) by suffering in some fashion.
I mean, we’re all in this thing together! For that reason, any attempt to include all facets and nuances of meaning possible in “suffering” (as I raise the question in my sermon title) will have a hard time being precise, comprehensive, or consistent. I know that it’s a big question! (In fact, I know for lack of time today, we will have to come back at it next Sunday.)
S. Paul Schilling writes in his book, God and Human Anguish, that “to suffer is to undergo physical or mental pain, distress, injury, or loss.”[i] Because suffering is not a thing but an experience, I think it is best described not by “definition” but by examples: stories gleaned from church members, from Scripture, from history, and from the nightly news. God knows there is plenty of pain and suffering reported in daily newspapers!
It has been my experience, in nearly 40 years as an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, that one of the blessings of the Christian faith is the additional resources it can bring into people’s lives to help us cope with our troubles, to endure our anguish, and to overcome our suffering. (That’s one of the things I look forward to when we are permitted once again to meet “face to face” in worship…) When the gathered community sings its songs, preaches its sermons, and lifts its prayers about life and death, about joy and pain, about pleasures and problems, the participants in worship actually divide their burdens and multiply their joys with one another. (!) (It’s hard to do that over the internet.) Further-more, the very experience of invoking God’s presence and asking for help in the midst of trials, troubles, and pain can reconnect that person with a “higher power” from which new possibilities may arise. Worship can be healing. Prayer makes a difference. Those who suffer are blessed by God.
For many people, to experience that kind of help from their Christian faith in the midst of their suffering is all they need. They sense the amazing grace that is saving them, and it is enough; their primary need has been met. They have received comfort from God through their church, and they can now endure the pain. To these saints, I say, as Jesus said so often: “Go in peace. Your faith has made you well.”[ii] My sermon today will not add an iota to the comfort they already have in knowing that God is with them through it all, loving them and uplifting them.
But then there are others (like myself) whose needs are not fully met in that way. I think of the occasion in this morning’s Scripture, when Jesus was speaking with Pharisees who wondered why he was hanging around with “sinners,” with sick people & social outcasts, instead of the righteous folks who had their act together. He told them: “If you are healthy, you have no need for a physician.[iii] I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.” “I have come to seek and to save those who are lost.[iv]”
So, while I may not be entirely “sick” nor altogether “lost,” I must nevertheless admit that I have a secondary need when bad things happen. That is, I want to understand how God is involved when people suffer. (!) I want insight as well as comfort. I guess that I am one of those folks who needs life to make sense, especially in the face of tragedy. (!) So… if the experience of suffering makes you ask: “Why, God?,” as it does me, then come back next Sunday and maybe we’ll find some help. Amen.
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Riddle, Julie, “Always heartache, but there’s always a resurrection”, The Alpena News,
Vol. 121, No 215, Sat., April 11, 2020, page 5A
[i]Sylvester Paul Schilling, God and Human Anguish (Nashville: Abingdon, 1977), 10
[ii]Luke 7:50, 8:48
[iii] Matthew 9:12, Mark 2:17, Luke 5:31