The 5th Sunday of Lent
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
As we began our worship this morning with a reading from the prophet Jeremiah, we heard God offer a sweeping promise. <em>I will put my law within you, and I will write it on your hearts. No longer will you teach one another, for you shall all know me, from the least of you to the greatest. </em>
God says, in effect, that you will be beyond any need for further striving. What is external will become so internalized that you will live God’s ways without having to think about it. No need for more understanding; no artificial effort to be good; only an integrated faith that comes from truly knowing God. As Jesus put it to the woman at the well, <em>Out of your heart will flow a spring of living water.</em>
I suspect most Christians think of this promise as only pertaining to the afterlife, to heaven. Many even go so far as to say that we can’t even taste God’s promise of fulfillment in this life, because we’re completely dominated by sin. As we slog through this wicked world, all we have is repentance and a hope for pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. That’s not my experience.
The Christian faith is not just a preview of another world. The gospel is directed towards this human life. It tells stories of fathers forgiving prodigal sons, healing and feeding, and great acts of generosity and self-sacrifice. It is practical, do-able. Jesus always pointed to this life, this human plane, and went so far as to say that we can become as he is. <em>You shall know God, and out of your heart will flow a spring of living water. </em>
Nobody said it would be easy. It isn’t automatic, as if belief inevitably translates into holiness of life. But it is possible. And there are tried-and-true pathways that many have used successfully before us. One, obviously, is a life of prayer. Another is immersion in sacrament, fellowship, and scripture. There is always study, and service. All of these pathways help us to write God’s ways upon our hearts.
But there is another tried-and-true pathway towards a truly integrated faith that we’re less likely to embrace. And yet it is the one that the gospel, the scriptures, and the saints always point to. It is the path of suffering. We are even told that suffering is at the heart of the matter.
Beginning with Palm Sunday next week, we reach the climax of our liturgical year. Everything in Jesus’ life and ministry culminates in the terrible and miraculous events of that week in Jerusalem. The second reading told us today that in that week, Jesus “was made perfect” through his suffering.
In the gospel today, Jesus is coming to terms with this fact. He looks ahead to what is going to happen and calls it his “glorification.” He speaks of grains of wheat that die but in doing so, bear much fruit. And then he turns to his friends and says that they, too, must come to terms with suffering. Those who love their life too much, those who try to avoid suffering, will lose true life.
Jesus’ heart was troubled. But he knew that he now stood before the gate to eternal life. For he understood what every spiritual teacher has ever taught - that suffering can be spiritually transformative, even though naturally, we would rather avoid it. The cross opens to the resurrection.
For millennia, humankind has pondered the events of Holy Week. I think this is because somewhere inside we intuit what Jesus understood - that suffering can perfect us, too; that God in us may well be glorified through our suffering. So let’s consider how this might be true.
What comes to mind first is what can happen in times of crisis. Right now several of our members are facing painful or frightening crises in their lives. We look at what is happening to them, shake our heads, and say “I don’t know how they do it.” They don’t either. But what they sometimes learn, and what we sometimes learn when things fall apart, is what really matters. This is always liberating, and it helps us to know God.
Now I haven’t suffered as some of you have, or anywhere near what many others in this world have to endure every day. But there have been dark times when I was lost or abused, times when I had no power to control or change myself or my circumstances. In each one of these times, as I was stripped down, a new person emerged - a stronger, clearer, even happier person. God’s ways were more firmly engraved upon my heart.
Suffering can also awaken us when we risk being in relationship with those who suffer more than we do. Some of you do this every week through our Food Pantry, or by taking communion to people in nursing homes, or by volunteering at St. Martin’s center for the homeless. Some of you work in your job every day with children or adults whose situations are heartbreaking. Or you may be in a close relationship with a friend or relative who is going through a very hard time, just being present and offering your love.
When we put ourselves in proximity to others who suffer more than we do, it tends to soften our heart. We see the complexity and fragility of things. We become less sure of what we think we know, or of how secure we imagine ourselves to be. But for a person of faith, rather than frighten us, this can free us.
For it can free us from our delusions about control, from our separateness as a person who has it together, from our rigid convictions about how other people should live. It can bring us into the human family, where we share one another’s burdens and know that we, too, will need the friendship of others when it is our turn to fall. And that kind of friendship is one way of knowing the God who lives between us.
But suffering can also be less obvious than personal crises and the sharing of hard times. It is also, more subtly, a part of everyday life. Maybe you have a happy-go-lucky persona. Some people appear to be that way, but in my experience, once you get past the smile and get to know them, even they live with some kind of anxiety, some kind of shadow. We all do.
We want things we can’t have. We worry about things we did or didn’t do, and we conjure up unsettling scenarios of the future. <em>Will I get this done on time? Will it be right? Did I say the wrong thing? I’m such an idiot. Do I have to spend another minute with this tiresome person? Why are others so disappointing? I’m so angry. Why can’t I be fully present to this beautiful day? I don’t feel good; what a drag...(sigh)...When shall I be released from this petty, nagging distress? </em>
Most consider this sort of everyday, low level of suffering to be inevitable. And so to temporarily lift our spirits, we distract ourselves with soul-numbing entertainment or self-medication. But the spiritual life suggests a different approach. It points us back into the suffering itself, saying that this thing we’d rather avoid is, in fact, the gate of heaven. This is the cross that leads to resurrection.
Pointing ourselves back into our distress is the same, whether it is petty or truly disturbing. It can be done in the safety of prayer, where we allow the suffering to be there, physically, emotionally, in the presence of God. As we breathe through it with God, we discover that it has less power than we thought, and that at least some of our distress is manufactured by our thoughts and fears about it.
Whenever we can bring awareness to our suffering, we can also release our grip on it. We can stop our mental scurrying to control or change it, and offer it to God as it is. We can trust that this, too, shall pass. And in this releasing and trusting and seeing its transience, we settle down and return to the fulness that surrounds us on every side. We remember that in God, all shall be well.
Whether we suffer in crisis, in empathy with another, or in the everyday struggle of being human, when we stop fighting or avoiding it and let it in, it has a way of transforming us. It simplifies and clarifies us. It softens our heart and makes us more human. And it settles us down in the miraculous present with God.
God said <em>I will put my law within you, and I will write it on your hearts. You shall all know me. Out of your heart will flow a spring of living water.</em>
These are not empty promises. Nor are they mere previews of the afterlife. What God is saying is possible. There are many roads that lead there, but the one we mustn’t avoid is the path of suffering. It may be the most direct route.