God, Suffering, Lamentation, and Gratitude
Pentecost 5 (Year B)
(I Samuel 1:1, 17-27, Psalm 130, II Corinthians 8:7-15, Mark 5:21-43)
by John Morris
Today’s readings can help us focus on two temptations to resist and two things to embrace.
The first temptation is to blame God for illness and suffering. Jairus, the grieving synagogue leader, and the nameless woman with serious hemorrhages did not blame God for their suffering. “Why did God do this to me?” is too easy a question to pose. Resist it.
At a time of tragedy, serious illness, or death of a loved one, don’t let anyone say to you, “This must be part of God’s plan.” The son of William Sloan Coffin, Jr. died in a tragic car accident. Possibly on account of a broken windshield wiper, possibly on account of some drugs, he drove his car into Boston Harbor and drowned. Too many people said to Coffin, ”It’s God’s will. It must be part of God’s plan.” Coffin replied, “NO!” And in one of the most famous sermons of the 20th century, Coffin took to the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York City shortly after his son’s death and said, “The first heart to break when the car went under the water was God’s heart.”
A God who sends illness and tragedy as punishment is not a God worthy of worship. That is not the God of the Bible. God is not against us. God is for us and with us, in good times and in bad. That’s Good News.
As we resist the temptation to blame God for illness or tragedy, we also need to resist the temptation to think that if our faith is strong enough, everything will work out O.K. If we just believe hard enough, our prayers will be answered. No, that’s not what Jesus invites us to do. Sometimes we get the feeling—maybe even by reading stories like the ones about Jairus and the nameless woman in today’s Gospel, that (in an image used by Barbara Brown Taylor in one of her sermons) faith is like the booth at a county fair: there is a tall chute with a bell at the top; if you hit the pad at the bottom hard enough with a sledgehammer, and send the weight up the chute, you can hit the bell. The temptation is to think that prayer is like that—send strong prayers up the chute and hit the bell…Bong! A miracle happens. The miracle stories about Jesus are more complicated and more mysterious than that. Not everyone’s prayers for a miracle get answered; people who get a miracle sometimes do so without asking. Be careful with these stories.
Resist the temptation to think that it’s the strength of our faith that will bring a miracle. The flip side of that coin is even more dangerous: if things don’t go well for me, it must be because I am not praying hard enough or having enough faith. The result of that thinking is that not only am I suffering, but now I am also burdened with guilt.
Jesus invites us to trust him, trust God, and live in hope….with no guarantees of immediate success. Jesus is not in the magic business (the phrase “Talitha cum” is even preserved in the Gospel and tempts us to see it as a magic formula). The Gospel of Mark stresses Jesus’ desire to keep healings a secret, possibly to prevent people from seeing him just as a wonder worker. Jesus manifests the Kingdom of God and invites us to trust that reality and live in the presence of the Holy Spirit. That is what is truly wonder-full.
Now, two things to embrace.
The first is lamentation. We are not called to be people of a stiff upper lip. One third of the Psalms are psalms of lamentation. Today’s Psalm, #130, is one of the most profound. Indeed, its Latin title is “De Profundis.” (“Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord….”)
My professor of Hebrew Scripture at Boston University School of Theology many years ago suggested that everyone should have a “Wailing Wall” in their home, a place to go to wail and lament and cry out to God. He also said that we shouldn’t carry that wall around with us and burden others with a constant pity party about ourselves. A modern instance of lamentation is the bumper sticker I have encouraged people to use: “S H _ _ happens!” Accompanying that bumper sticker, though, should be another bumper sticker that says, “GRACE Happens!” Another alternative for public lamentation would be the phrase “Life _ _ _ _ _” (a five letter word that rimes with ‘trucks”)
David would have appreciated those bumper stickers. He was lamenting the death of King Saul, who was in fact David’s adversary. David’s weeping over the death of his “enemy” is similar to two scenes in the animated story of the Exodus, a recent remake of DeMille’s classic The Ten Commandments (what an unfortunate movie, in many ways, that film was, including the casting of a tall, Caucasian Protestant to play the part of a very short, very Semitic Moses!). In The Prince of Egypt, Moses in one scene is shown weeping after the death of the Pharaoh’s son. Even though that death motivated Pharaoh to let the Hebrew slaves leave Egypt, Moses still laments that death. Later, when some of Pharaoh’s soldiers are drowned in the Red Sea, Moses is shown again weeping over those deaths.
God’s heart is broken when anyone dies, so we need to embrace lamenting and let ourselves join God in weeping.
Caution: there are two levels of wailing, possibly captured by two different Yiddish phrases. I may not be using these words with total accuracy, but maybe they can help us differentiate between the kind of complaining and whining about relatively minor aches and pains that is called, in Yiddish, “kvetching”. Resist that. On the other hand, the Yiddish words “OyVey” point to a deeper level of suffering. When the Hebrew slaves were groaning under oppression, it was major league suffering and their lament was heard by God and God responded by sending leaders to deliver them from slavery. Out of those depths, we cry to God and God hears and responds with grace and love, maybe not with the miracle we desire, but with steadfast love and comfort, even at times of greatest suffering and loss.
The second thing to embrace, along with lamentation, is gratitude. St. Paul wanted to raise funds for the relief of poverty and famine in the Christian community in Jerusalem. He invited the Christians in Corinth to contribute generously to this outreach effort. Paul didn’t command or manipulate the Corinthians. He did not use some slick fund-raising techniques on them. As one commentator notes, Paul did not promise that a parish hall in Jerusalem would be named after a generous donor. Paul just tells the Corinthians about Jesus, whose whole life was a divine outpouring of generosity and love. Paul hopes that the Corinthians will appreciate Jesus’ incomparable gifts to them and then gratefully share what they have so that no one will have too much and no one will have too little (Note: this wise Biblical principle is sorely lacking in the United States today as we observe the scandalous inequality of wealth.)
Underneath it all is Gratitude. Gratitude for what we have received from God and a willingness to follow Jesus in sharing what we have been given.
Last Sunday, we expressed our thanks to Todd McKee for sharing many of his gifts with us for the past nine months as our parish intern. One final gift to me from Todd was a story he told in his last sermon here. He told about a special whistle used in the British navy. I asked him where he got that story and he told me about a website called “Sermon Nuggets.” So, of course, I checked that website as I prepared this sermon and I found a great quote to share with you. Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live life: as though nothing is miracle or as though everything is miracle.”
I hope we choose the latter and live gratefully and generously in our miracle-filled lives.