Rev. Rainey Dankel | 3.20.22
In the year I spent as a hospital chaplain, I think I heard every possible platitude and euphemism about illness and suffering. Of course, most were said by people who were trying to be helpful. I know that.
One of the most common bits of “comfort” was some version of these words: “God won’t send you more than you can handle.” The first time I heard it, I thought it was not helpful advice. Then I heard someone say, “It’s in the Bible.” “Hmm, I thought. Not a passage I am familiar with.” Later I looked it up. And here it is today, in the lectionary as our second reading: “God will not let you be tested beyond your strength.” Thanks, Paul.
In the movie Zorba the Greek, Zorba is angry and sad at the horrific death of an elderly woman. He is talking with the young Englishman who has come to live on the island, bringing his many books with him. Zorba confronts him: “English, why do innocent people die? Why does anyone die?” The young man replies, “I don’t know.” Zorba is increasingly frustrated, “What good are all your books? What do they tell you?” The young man replies softly, “They tell me about the agony of people who can’t answer these questions.”
All of our readings today deal in some way with questions of suffering. Why do we suffer? Why do innocent people suffer? Whose fault is it? And where is God in all this? The readings offer us help that I hope I can illuminate. But—spoiler alert—I don’t have definitive or comprehensive answers to those questions. I don’t think the Bible offers them. The Bible does give us glimpses and images that provide a foundation for our sense of peace. And as we explore them, and offer them to each other, we find meaning and comfort. Because what is sure is God’s faithfulness. As the Psalmist says, “My soul clings to you; your right hand holds me fast.” (63:8)
Let’s start with the Gospel. Some people come to Jesus with a tale of suffering inflicted by a Roman ruler. We don’t hear their questions, but Jesus perceives them to be blaming the victims as he offers a question of his own: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Jesus is penetrating their supposed concern because it is probably a masked attempt to justify themselves. Those people suffered because they were bad. Jesus is not interested in blaming the victim. And then he answers his own question, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish.” Hmm. Perhaps not a very pastoral response, Jesus. But an honest one.
Jesus rejects our judgmental attitudes. “She was raped because she brought it on herself by dressing so provocatively.” “He was shot because he was out at 2:00 am.” “He doesn’t deserve a new liver because of his addiction to alcohol.” Jesus reminds us that if we think God is in the business of meting out judgment and curses in relation to our sins, we are all in a mess. Yes, there are consequences of our bad choices and actions, but that is not the final word from God. And trying to justify ourselves will take us in the wrong direction.
Then Jesus tells this story about a fig tree that isn’t producing fruit. The owner is out of patience and tells the gardener to cut it down. The gardener is more forgiving. He begs for another year and offers to take more measures to help the tree to produce fruit. The story ends there, but presumably, the tree gets a year’s reprieve.
How is this story helpful in a discussion of suffering? Jesus has rejected the hypothesis that says “If you suffer it’s because you are sinful.” Instead, he focuses on what can be done in the midst of disappointment and failure and loss. Part of the reason we suffer is that we feel abandoned and powerless. We want to know why something has happened, and we can’t find answers. If we can find some meaning, then we can feel less victimized and more able to endure. The gardener in the story shows us hope. He doesn’t “blame” the tree for failure to produce fruit. He goes about doing what he can to provide help. He is a picture of someone looking for opportunities for kindness instead of judgment.
Let’s take another look at Paul. He is writing to the young church in Corinth where internal controversies are pulling people apart. Paul makes a remarkable comparison of these folks with their spiritual ancestors, the people of Israel, who are liberated from Egypt, but who spend forty years in the wilderness, complaining to Moses and to God about their plight. By drawing our attention to Israel, God’s “chosen people,” Paul seems to be telling all of us not to be relying on our privileged status to say that we can act any way we want without regard for God or for our fellow humans.
Paul is urging us to see a parallel in the delivery from Egypt and the cleansing waters of baptism as signs of God’s care for us. But when we become absorbed in our own needs and interests, to the neglect of the promises that we make to follow God and live in community, we are headed for trouble. As he says, “If you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” And then Paul makes this claim that we started with today: “God will not let you be tested beyond your strength.” When that advice is quoted, that is all we usually hear. And it comes across as, “If you just had more faith in God, you would be OK.” Or worse, “If you are a good person, you will be OK, but if not, too bad.”
But we have only heard part of the sentence. Paul’s statement begins with “God is faithful,” and then he says, yes, you will be tested, as we all are, and he continues with the part we don’t usually hear: “but with the testing, God will provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” The emphasis is on God’s faithfulness, not our goodness. God is faithful in leading us out of oppressions, in guiding us through the pain of feeling abandoned, and through the cleansing power of divine love to find new life. We may forget our baptismal promises, but God does not forget. As we say in the baptismal ceremony, “You are marked as Christ’s own forever.”
I haven’t checked the original Greek of Paul’s letter, but I am claiming that when Paul speaks to the Corinthian Christians and says, “you,” he means “you” in the plural. When he says, God will provide a way out, he is speaking to us collectively as well as individually. Because that is usually how we experience God’s faithfulness: it is through the love and support of people that God’s care becomes tangible. So the statement that God will provide a way is not some kind of whistling in the dark. It’s a way of my getting unstuck from my personal plight and seeing myself as part of a community. It is a promise that we see fulfilled in the countless ways that God’s mercy is mediated through the loving actions of other people, individually and through institutions.
When the Covid vaccine became available, some people said they were refusing the shots because “God will take care of me.” It seemed to them a badge of honor that their faith would keep them well. “Don’t put God to the test,” says Paul. I say, “Don’t reject the very help that God may be offering you.” The patient and skillful work of scientists who developed the vaccine, the care of medical personnel for those who are vulnerable, and the public health departments working to reach people with the vaccines are some of the very ways that God takes care of us. It does indeed take a village to protect us, and often that is how God works.
As we are constantly reminded in these days of war and terror, people are capable of great cruelty, resulting in much suffering. And we also have glimpses of the great kindness of which people are capable. We see hundreds of people in Poland reaching out to Ukrainian refugees to provide food, shelter, and companionship. Agencies and people from other countries are giving aid to provide the next steps in a way forward. They don’t have to make testimonials for us to see their kindness and mercy as evidence of God’s power at work. However much war and cruelty may cloud our sights, the strength of God’s love in human form is visible and reassuring. It’s a fierce love, not deterred by fear and self-centeredness. It’s a form of regaining power in a seemingly powerless situation—the power of love to endure and to prevail.
Last century the Holocaust was the murder of six million people, mostly Jews and some others whom Hitler considered inferior. In the concentration camp in Ravensbruck 130,000 women were interned, of whom some 50,000 died. When the camp was liberated, a piece of brown wrapping paper was found near the body of a dead child. On the paper were these words (as translated into English):
O Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill but also those of evil will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted upon us; remember the fruits we have borne thanks to this suffering—our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this; and when they come to judgment, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness. Amen. (Quoted in A Cross in the Heart of God, by Samuel Wells, p. 21.)
In the midst of some of the greatest terror inflicted by humans, the spark of divine light glowed in that writer, a woman and perhaps a mother. Here was a person who showed how to turn hatred into mercy, cruelty into beauty. In her prayer, she trusted that God was with her, and she left us words to know and share that trust.
God created us for love. And when we recognize and return that love, to God and for each other, we experience God’s faithfulness. When we recognize the divine image in each other, our hearts find peace. Nothing the world can do to us—not even death itself—obliterates that image.
Mercy and forgiveness are God’s gifts to us. Forgiveness and mercy for ourselves and for each other. Forgiveness and mercy that make a way through suffering and death. As we continue our journey through Lent, we look for these signs, knowing that we are headed for a cross that shows us God’s faithfulness with love we can barely fathom. What wondrous love is this, O my soul.