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There is Goodness in God, and God in Suffering,
But is There Good in Suffering?

Sermon - 4/13/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Peter 2:18-25

The sermon this morning begins with a question, the title of the sermon.  I think we would all agree that there is goodness in God, otherwise we wouldn't be here, probably.  And I suspect that most of us would affirm that God can be found in suffering -- that God is present where there is suffering.

So my question is:  Is there, then, any good in suffering?

It's a good question to ponder as we all suffer through the campaign season, but that's not why I ask it J.  Rather, the question arises for me out of the text for this morning.  The bulletin says that text is 1 Peter 2:18-25, but actually, the lectionary text, that is, the selection that has been chosen for reading in many Protestant and Catholic churches across the country, begins with verse 19 through 25.  So I'm going to read that for you, because that's what was chosen to be read.  And it says:

19For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
22‘He committed no sin,
   and no deceit was found in his mouth.’
23When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

Now, there are a number of familiar ideas contained in that text, things we've heard before.  And there are some challenges.  But the greatest challenge of this text comes from the verse I did not read, the verse that the lectionary would have us omit.  So that should get your curiosity up to open your Bibles and see what it is!  Verse 18 says:

18 Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.

In other words, this whole idea presented here, of enduring suffering, is presented within this context of slavery.  It is addressed to slaves.

Now if that doesn't spoil the passage for you, read the next verse that comes after this passage, that is a continuation of instruction to Christian households.  Where we read:

Wives, in the same way [as slaves, above], accept the authority of your husbands

Any questions, women? J   I mean, talk about your anti-progressive ideas.  If I told you that I was reading not from the New Testament but from the documents seized in the Texas ranch of the fundamentalist Latter Day Saints Church (were 14 and 15-year-old girls apparently have been married to older men practicing polygamy), you'd be appalled.

Indeed, if any of us heard this text being read to those women and children removed by Texas authorities from that ranch, we would probably stand up and shout "Stop!  They've suffered enough already!".

So what do we do with a text like this, that seems so contrary to our modern sensibilities?

Well, first of all, what we don't do is precisely what the lectionary does -- omitting those passages that we find problematic or perhaps even offensive.  Skipping over verse 18, and Chapter 3 verse 1, is whitewashed scripture.  And as such is dishonest and shows a lack of respect for both the text and the listener.

I don't know what goes on in the minds of those who serve on lectionary committees that select these passages.  It only happens once every decade or so, they take another look, get experts together, make some changes and suggestions for churches to use, go through all of the scriptures over the course of three years.  Maybe they're thinking "Well, gosh, maybe we shouldn't have this particular verse read in churches all across the country because Christians might decide that slavery is OK, and we might re-institute it".  You know, would any of us think that?  I don't think so.

I keep coming back to that slogan that our Vision Team came up with, that our mission is to:

  • Transform lives,

  • Transform Christianity,

  • Transform our World

You see, if we're serious about transforming Christianity, and I think we should be, it means that we have to face honestly and truthfully the failures of our faith.  What Bishop Shelby Spong dares to call the "sins of scripture".  And one of the biggest has been the acceptance of slavery as the will of God by most Christians for most of our history because of passages such as this one.  That's a problem that we need to face.  If we are going to be serious about transforming lives and transforming the world, then we have to be serious about transforming Christianity. 

And that means:  no more will we sweep the sins of our past under a rug.  No more will we move abusive clergy from parish to parish to avoid dealing with the abuse.  No more will we allow others to hide behind selective verses of scripture to justify their prejudices and phobias.  No more will we allow hate in the name of Christ, killing in the name of God.

To transform Christianity means no less than the rebirth of the church as a powerful resurrection force of new life.  It means no less than sharing the love of Christ for all people.  It means no less than spreading the peace of God among all nations.  It means no less than working for the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven, that will bring an end to all forms of slavery, an end to all means of oppression, an end to all manners of racism and discrimination, an end to all manifestations of violence against God's children and even God's earth.

That's what we're talking about when we talk about transforming our faith.

It all begins with reclaiming our scriptures as a witness to the ongoing revelation of God, long after the revelation of the Bible was finished.

The United Church of Christ has a wonderful slogan they use in their advertising, you see it in banners sometimes in front of the congregation (someday we're going to have banners like that in front of our church), and it says:  "God is still speaking".

In other words, it's not enough any more to say 'Well, the Bible says'.  Because the truth of the matter is the Bible says slavery is perfectly OK, if you're just good, fair, just in your treatment of your slaves.  We have to be able to say, humbly and with conviction, not just what the Bible says, but what God is saying today.  There can be no question now, I don't think any of us would question it, that slavery is wrong.  That it is evil. 

And we come to that awareness of how God is still speaking not only through the cultivation of our listening skills, of prayer and discernment, but also through the movement of history.  Through the transformation of social and cultural norms.  The transformation of our own understanding of how God works in the world.  And how we read scripture.

That same spirit of transformation, guided by the love of Christ and the peace of God, obviously can and has changed many other things besides our attitudes toward slavery.  We joked about women being silent in church, obeying their husbands and the like, but in reality, that's not a joke.  There has been a tremendous transformation in our understanding the role of women within the church and within society.

As there has been and continues to be to this day in our understanding of homosexuality.  In our views on the environment.  Even in the development of democracy, a concept you will not find in the Bible that has found great support within Christianity and Judaism.

All of those are signs of the ongoing transformation of God at work in the world today.

I want to talk about that transformation, because it relates to our understanding of suffering, and I believe that the popular understanding of suffering in Christianity needs transformation.

And that popular understanding goes something like this: 

Because of our sin, that is enormous, Christ had to suffer a terrible death.  Had to endure enormous suffering.  And hence, Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ movie, you may remember from several years ago, that sought to portray that suffering.  And now we, in thankful gratitude, are called to take up the cross and to suffer like him as we carry this message of good news into the world.

Does that sound familiar?

Never mind that logically it does not make a lot of sense, practically it results in too many neurotic Christians, overcome with a sense of guilt, they feel worthless and not deserving of God's love.  What a worm am I.

That is theological hogwash.  Every person here is a child of God.  Every person here deserves God's love.  No one here is responsible for the death of Christ. 

We are not the cause of Christ's suffering.  Christ died for our sins, not because of them.  That is, Christ died to free us from the hold sin has on us, not to hold it against us.

By the same token, I would then argue that Christ died to end sacrifice, to end suffering.  And therefore, when we knowingly, purposefully perpetuate suffering (be it our own or someone else's) we work against Christ.

Note that in this text the author says Jesus did not return abuse for abuse.  He did not retaliate for his suffering.  What a concept!  If we could only apply that in our world today.

Earlier in the text, verse 16, it says:

16As servants* of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.

[* By the way, if you're reading in your text, you'll notice it says "servants" of God, instead of "slaves" of God.  But the Greek also means, and probably would be better translated as 'slaves'.  But because of our discomfort with this notion of slavery, too often translators change it to 'servants' because that's more acceptable to us]

Even as the author accepts the reality of slavery, he calls slaves to live above their station in life.  To be a model, to be an example for Christians everywhere.

Now think about the social implications of that.  Slaves, normally considered to be the bottom rung of society, held up as the example for others.  The last shall be first.  In other words, they suffer not for suffering's sake alone (to be more Christ-like), but for a greater good.  To inspire all Christians to a life of faith that relies on God even when, and especially when, life is most difficult (as it surely was for slaves in the first century).

The point is not to encourage slaves to tolerate the conditions of slavery (which of course works to the benefit of the masters), but rather to encourage Christians, most of whom at this time were people on the margins of society (slaves, dispossessed, women) to transcend their suffering that they might be agents of transformation for the world.

Think about the radical nature of that.  That those on the margins and at the bottom of society dared to think that they could be agents of  transformation for the whole world.

So from their experience, I take this lesson, for the good in suffering as the way of Christ, the way of the cross, that first of all there is no good in suffering in and of itself.  It's only good when it leads to something beyond it, beyond the suffering.

Suffering without a purpose, that is something else to be achieved by it, has no purpose.  No value.  No meaning.  Christ did not die on the cross so that we could all live miserable lives.

Eckhart Tolle, who Alan Brandenfels likes to cite (I'm sorry he's not here this morning), says that suffering can lead to a spiritual awakening, one of the results of which is the realization that you don't need to suffer any more.  God does not will our suffering.  But God can use it.  God can transform it.  God can bring good out of it.  But God does not will it.

The very suffering, Tolle says, that comes from being here in this physical realm can become an opening into that which we call divine.  And of course the ultimate symbol for that is the cross.  Which, Tolle notes, as I often have, the cross is a torture instrument.  It became a symbol of the divine through the suffering of Christ who transcends that suffering into hope.  So suffering only has value when it yields some greater good.

One of the three remaining Presidential candidates (and which one is not relevant to my point, we don't endorse candidates anyway) tells a great story of a young woman, white woman, age 23 as I recall, by the name of Ashley.  And Ashley organized a campaign meeting for her candidate, got a bunch of people together.  To introduce everyone, she invited everyone to tell their story.  She began telling her own story of how, as a young girl age 8 or 9, her mother became quite ill.  And the medicine for her mother was very expensive.  So Ashley persuaded her Mom that what she really like to eat was mustard and relish sandwiches, without any meat, without any cheese.  You know, to save the money so her Mom could buy the medicine.  And for a whole year, that's all Ashley ate, until her Mom got well and could go back to work.  Now, at this meeting, she said she is there to work for change in healthcare so that no other child has to go through what I went through.

You can see that as a model for us, of that kind of suffering that leads to some greater good.  Done with a purpose, and then used to see to it that no one else has to suffer in the same way.

And that leads to my second point, that by lifting up the example of slaves who suffer unjustly, this text points to another aspect of suffering which hopefully is self-evident for all Christians:  to worship the risen Christ, who rose not just from the dead but from a tortuous execution, means we cannot ignore the suffering of others.  To ignore that suffering would be to ignore the suffering of Christ.  This is the point of Matthew 25:  "I was hungry, and you did not feed me".

The great Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh urges us to not avoid contact with suffering, or to close our eyes before suffering.  Instead, to find ways to be with those who are suffering, by all means, and by such means awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.

Working, then, to end the crises in Darfur (pictures in the sanctuary), or in Gaza, or in Tibet, or working to end homelessness or hunger or addiction here at home, we must be willing to see the suffering personally, in order to do something about it.  To do that, to see that suffering, is to see and to know the suffering of Christ.

The sum, then, of this text, or what I believe God is saying to us in these modern times through it, is that we are called today to emulate Christ not in the same way as slaves in the first century (that would be absurd -- to suffer obediently as a model to others -- that is not the call) but rather that we are called to transform and transcend suffering.  To find purpose, meaning, and redemption by seeking the greater good that makes any suffering worthwhile, and ultimately all suffering unnecessary, unwelcome, and non-existent.

That is the vision given to us in the final revelation of scripture, where we read [Revelation 21:3-4]:

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’ 

 

May it so be here on earth, as in heaven.

 


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