A Sermon on Suffering

The post of my friend Steve Shoemaker’s poem “Murillo’s Christ after the Flagellation” and the comments that you posted prompted the sermon I delivered this morning at Shepherd of the Hill Presbterian Churchin Chaska, MN. The sermon never would have happened without your thoughtful, penetrating comments on the earlier post. THANK YOU. Here’s the sermon.

THE FLAGELLATION

“Now the men who were holding Jesus mocked him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and asked him ‘Prophesy! Who was it that struck you?’ And they spoke many other words against him and reviled him.”  Gospel of Luke 22:63

Two months ago I created a blog. One of my seminary classmates, Steve Shoemaker, wrote the other day to say that he was impressed by how prolific I was. I thought maybe he meant “wordy” until he said that my productivity embarrassed his laziness as a poet. So, he said, “Here’s the deal I’ve made with myself. For every piece you put up on your blog, I’ll write a poem.” Steve is 6’8 and a basketball player in college. Clearly, he hasn‘t lost his competitive spirit.

A poem arrived last Friday. It’s a reflection on a painting by sixteenth century Spanish artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. In the painting, Jesus is bent over on all fours after he being mocked and beaten.

Christ after the Flagellation

Steve’s poem, “Murillo’s Christ after the Flagellation” changed the direction of the sermon this morning.  Here’s the poem.

The human had been tied to the whipping

post, a pillar that had been used many

times before by the Romans (and ages

earlier by the Greeks–but for a much

different purpose). Now, his pale skin looks

translucent (should it not have been darker,

with more blood?) His mother recalled his bris.

They had both cried then, too.

A strong young man, broad back, thick arms, now on

hands and knees, but head raised with eyes open:

seeing a cross that’s even worse ahead…

Still, unflinching, resigned–no, determined

to go on, face more pain, indignities,

shame, even death (there is no sign of God.)

Shortly there arrived a brief comment from a blogger who blogs about the daily struggle with mental illness.

“This poem brought tears to my eyes.”

Score one for my friend Steve.

Later in the day another comment arrived on the blog in response to Steve’s poetry. Like the first comment, this one also comes from someone with a history of some kind of long-term suffering. It reads as follows.

I have a response to the stories of Christ’s beating that often leaves others aghast. So brace yourselves:

He was beaten for several hours, or a day or two? Big deal. Those of us who have suffered years of abuse and terror know what real suffering is.

I don’t find focusing on Jesus’ suffering, or any of that 12 stages of the cross crap, to be helpful at all. I find it to be insulting. As if there is something noble and glorious about suffering. Nope, not a damn thing to recommend it. I know that Jesus voluntarily placed himself in the position for that to happen. So? Doesn’t help.

Please, fellow readers, don’t think that I am an isolated one, or few. There are lots and lots of us feeling this way.

The world is full – FULL – of people who have suffered much worse for decades or lifetimes. Think of people who live in North Korea. Or poor girls growing up in India. Or young girls in Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints settlements who get married off to much older men and are then raped daily for the rest of their lives. Jesus’ few days of humiliation are nothing in comparison.

The Lenten/Easter season is my favorite church season because I am reminded of how deeply I am loved and how quickly I am forgiven. Jesus’ brief beating plays no role in that….

The writer is hardly alone in his thinking about this. What do we say about those whose tenures of torture and suffering far exceed the relatively short period of Jesus’ suffering?  Is focusing on Jesus’s suffering and the stations of the cross insulting to those who have suffered, and continue to suffer, for decades or for a lifetime?

How would you reply to the writer?

Here’s how I responded:

Your thoughtful response calls for an equally thoughtful reply. So I’ll try.

The cross, in my theology, in no way minimizes or disrespects the suffering of others. Nor does it say, as it is too often understood by sacrificial atonement theology, that suffering itself is noble or glorious. The cross was an instrument of Roman torture and execution. The Jesus who was tortured and executed, as were thousands of his Jewish contemporaries, is not somehow God masquerading in human flesh. That being said, moving the cross to the sidelines of Christian faith and reflection is, in my view, a mistake. Well meaning because it reacts against the twisted theology that understood it to be separate from, and above, all other human suffering, but mistaken nonetheless.

When I look at the cross, I see all these people. And I see myself there as both the crucified and the crucifier. What I see in the crucifix is total abandonment. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” And in some way I hear not only the cry of Jesus but the cry of the God Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as the Divine Center we push to the edge of the world.  I see in the Christ-event the tragedy and the hope of the divine-human encounter.

Sebastian Moore (The Crucified Jesus Is No Stranger and The Inner Loneliness) and Joseph Campbell awakened me to this richer Christology. Moore: “We have to think of God as closer to our evil than we ever dare to be. We have to think of God not as standing at the end of the way we take when we run away from our evil in the search for good, but as taking hold of us IN our evil, as the sore point which the whole idealistic thrust of man is concerned to avoid

“Redemption through the blood of Christ is (wrongly!) interpreted as the bending of Reality itself to man’s great dream of himself. And it is exactly the reverse. It is the ending of the dream. It is the beautiful collapse of the whole enterprise. It is the invasion of man by himself, with God at the center as love.” (Bolding added  for emphasis.)

Closer to home, another great theologian, my wife, Kay, reflected on the cross the other night at a Lenten series on “The Place of the Cross”:

“The Apostle Paul used to talk about all of his theology in terms of transformation at the foot of the cross. If a theological insight couldn’t go to the foot of the cross and be transformed there, then it wasn’t of God. This darkness is not for lightweight faith statements or testimonies. The annihilation of all goodness and all love which takes place in the action of one human being in violence to another human being—it cannot be redeemed by any other force but God’s pure love. That is a faith statement that lives inside a vacuum until manifested. There is no meeting of love and abandonment, they are mutually exclusive realities. We are lost. Period. And if God is to find us, then it is all about God’s initiative.”

From today’s perspective, Moore’s language is too gender- specific, not inclusive. But the substance of his Christology is totally inclusive. We’re all there. Anything short of that either drifts off into a new utopian project or into some new rendition  of the power of positive thinking. The power of Christian theology is its gravitas: it doesn’t turn away.

I told the blogger, “Love to hear more…. Hope we can keep the conversation alive.”

Hours later, an email arrived from the second blogger who had watched “The Leper” on the blog saying s/he was moved and grateful for the sermon.

If I could sit down in a coffee shop or in a living room by the fire to continue the conversation, this is what I would say.

The cross of Jesus does not minimize other suffering. It casts a light backward and forward into all darkness for all time. From inside the light we see the darkness of all human violence and abuse, and at the foot of the cross, we look up to realize that the protest against the suffering we impose on others and our own self-imposed suffering – our own reviling of others and our reviling or ourselves — is not just our protest. It is God’s. It is the suffering of God at the hands of a godless world. And the word for “they reviled him” is the same as the word “blasphemed” him.  Whenever we treat others cruelly, or treat ourselves cruelly, we blaspheme God. We are reviling and whipping the back of God.

From Jesus’s cry to God – “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” – there comes an echo from the heavens: “My children, my children, why have you abandoned me? My children, how could you forsake Me?”

The cross calls for an end to the reviling of others and our own sorry self-flagellation, as though those we revile, or we ourselves, would be or should be beyond love’s reach.

Who is the “the human tied to the whipping post”? Who puts her there?

Will you join the suffering of the God who wants it all to stop? Will you rejoice in the inevitable, eternal reach of God’s love and redeeming grace?

Footnote: Here is Steve, the poet, among the Bristle Cone Pines at 11,000 feet in Colorado:

Steve Shoemaker

..

A fellow student at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, we’ve continued the friendship for 47 years. A published poet, Steve was the Senior Minister of the McKinley Presbyterian Church and Director of the McKinley Foundation (campus ministry) at the University of Illinois for many years. He hosts “Keepin’ the Faith” on WILL, Illinois Public Radio,. He and his wife, Nadja, a research biologist, live in a geo-thermally-heated house on the prairie outside Urbana, IL where his neighbors often spot Steve’s kites riding the winds of the prairie skies.

6 thoughts on “A Sermon on Suffering

  1. I will go to the church’s website and contact you there. I enjoy iced tea and thealogical discussion too.

    I had a good talk this morning with a thoughtful friend about suffering, Lent, Jesus’ crucifixion. I find that I do a lot of processing as I discuss, listen to my own thoughts spoken aloud, and hear from others.

    I used to dislike the symbolism of the cross itself, but I’ve changed on that. The cross is empty; Jesus is not there; his tormentors lost. He is forever free of them. That’s what Jesus has done for me. I am forever free. A crucifix simply makes no sense to me. I wonder if they will ever let Jesus down.

    I remember as a small child sitting in a chair with my family at our tiny little country church. I don’t know that anyone ever expressly told me, but I knew that i was the real cause for Jesus’ death. If I hadn’t been so terrible, he wouldn’t have had to die. In my mind at that time, Jesus was the most perfect, blameless thing to ever exist. And because of me, he was gone.

    My father had made it clear that the abuse he perpetrated on me was my fault. I was making him be a bad man. Now here I was doing it to Jesus too.

    One of my clients pointed to a spot on the tile floor at our feet. It was no different than any other spot on the floor. But he saw the floor, the very earth, gaping open, and flames leaping up from hell. It was horrific to him, terrifying. God was trying to get him because he was such a terrible human being.

    That client suffered that torment on a regular basis. I haven’t seen him now for several years. I don’t know if he still survives. Parents whose children are born with disabilities wonder what they have done wrong that God did that to their baby. People can forgive those who’ve hurt them, but they can’t believe they are worthy of forgiveness or love.

    When all hope is gone nothing is left. If they can just hold onto to the tiniest little ember, if there is an ash that is not cold, that is enough for God.

    As I was telling my friend today, there is something in me that reaches out to such sorely pained folks and connects deeply with them. I accept that as part of my calling. Those folks need to know – over and over and over – that they are not suffering because it is God’s will so that they may atone for their sin. They need to know that Jesus’ purpose on the cross was not to suffer, not to “save” them.

    I have always told me congregations, my confirmation classes, and my clients – clearly, directly, unambiguously – that Jesus was there on that cross because his love for us is beyond our imagination. He was there because he would do absolutely anything. He was on that cross because he knows our value, our worth, is uncalculable. And his resurrection shows us that we should never, ever, give up hope.

    Survival sometimes depends upon keeping that tiny little warm ash alive, and this is how I help with that. The crucifixes, the grim cross images, the stories of suffering, they don’t help. In fact, they hurt.

    Look at that empty cross. . . . Jesus is not there. He won. Hope lives.

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  2. Thank you for your thoughtfulness. This is so difficult a subject, and it’s difficult to discuss on line. On the other hand, using a blog like this gives one more time to consider, and enables others to contribute. I have seen that you have some wonderful commenters here Gordon. I am going to think about this more. I’m going to think about what you have written here, and how to better articulate my thealogy.

    BTW, I’m an ordained ELCA pastor. I am a chaplain serving crazy people. It is good work.

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  3. That was a beautiful sermon. I love it when you link the stories of the Bible to everyday experiences and questions. I had never thought of the issue of all the suffering here on earth, that many endure as being so long in comparison to the time Jesus spent being tortured. I feel as if the stories in the Bible are told from such a different consciousness that interpreting them into the language of our everyday life is a challenge. It helps to have you discuss the many questions about the meaning behind the words in the Bible. It also helps to have these questions enlightened by quotes from great thinkers. I can see that you live in a world full of great thoughts thought by great thinkers of the ages, and I am jealous…But at least I can have a taste of that vast world when I come to church on Sundays. Thank you.

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    • Thanks, Christina, for sharing here on the blog. The Bible is vexing to many. Without thoughtful, informed interpretation its readers often are left in the cold or they miss the depths of a text’s meaning. You know a lot more than you think you do. Both Kay and I have appreciated your native curiosity and keen intellect. You’re a gem! Thanks for being there this morning, and thanks again for commenting here.

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