Suffering in the Lectionary (Proper 13, Year A)

The lections for this coming Sunday are a bit tough.  We start with a collect that is perfectly appropriate for the Lambeth Conference currently going:

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

For the gospel, we have the story of the feeding of the multitudes, which is so very familiar to most of us that I think we have a hard time reading and hearing the words that are actually there.  I think we have an idyllic view of this story – the pretty, pastoral scene, with green grass and flowers and all those peaceful people sitting on colorful picnic blankets, listening quietly to Jesus as he preached.  I have a feeling that this scene was very different, that those crowds were noisy – 5,000 men plus at least as many women and children, probably twice as many – that there were people there heckling Jesus, that there were many people shouting to each other in greeting, that there were arguments and conflict, that there were babies crying, that there were mothers calling out to children they could not see.  I have a feeling that these crowds were smelly, too – dirty and sweaty.  I have a feeling that this remote place wasn’t covered with beautiful green grass and colorful flowers, but that it was sandy and dirty and gritty – especially after being trampled by tens of thousands of feet.

And Jesus sensed all of this – saw the crowds, heard the screams, smelled the sweat – and this scripture says Jesus had compassion for them and cured their sick.  Jesus saw the suffering in all these people, and he felt it himself.  He was filled with compassion for these people, each one of them suffering in his or her own unique way.  And when they were suffering from hunger, Jesus made sure that they were all fed, satisfied, filled with wholesome food, and given such an abundance of leftovers that they would be fed for some time more.

The Old Testament reading also speaks of suffering.  Jacob is leaving Laban with his family now, to make their own home and their own way.  And during their first night of traveling, when all the women and babies and animals are asleep, Jacob spends the whole night wrestling with a man, who he doesn’t know is actually an angel.  During this wrestling match, he dislocates his hip, so Jacob walks with a limp for the rest of his life – he suffers from this pain for the rest of his life.  Once he realizes that this is an angel he has fought for the entire night, Jacob is grateful, even in the face of this suffering, because he realizes that he is blessed to have survived the night.

The reading from Romans speaks of suffering as well – great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart – are definitely emotional suffering.  Pain does not have to be physical.  And pain can be a gift from God.  It serves as a warning – Hey, sillyhead!  That doesn’t feel good!  Don’t do it any more! – and emotional pain is just as much of a warning as physical pain is.  But when pain turns into suffering, it is no longer serving that purpose.  Then it begins to exist of its own accord, and not always as a response to an external stimulus.

The problem with chronic pain – generally defined as a pain that persists for more than six months – is that it becomes suffering.  The pain becomes layered and loaded, intertwined with mental and emotional responses, and this entire bundle needs support and help and healing.  The fairly new medical discipline of pain management deals with all these components of suffering, relieving the pain, working on the causes of the pain, and helping with the layers of mental and emotional stress.  My own chronic pain has lasted only about two years; I know that there are many who live with the suffering of chronic pain for decades.  Jacob – Israel himself – had to deal with the chronic pain from his hip injury for decades.

I believe very strongly that Jesus does not want us to suffer.  We hear in this gospel reading – he had compassion on them, and cured their sick – and I believe that this is still true today.  I know that Jesus has compassion on us, and I know that Jesus can still heal us today… when we allow him to.  Another problem with chronic pain, when it becomes suffering, is that we become accustomed to it.  We don’t know what it’s like to live without pain, and as much as we wish the pain would go away, we might feel threatened by this possibility – what would it mean for me if my pain suddenly went away?  What would others expect of me?  What would God expect of me?  What would I expect of myself?  And so we may resist, if an opportunity opens up to whisk away the pain, to end the suffering, because we just can’t imagine what that would be like.

I have come to laugh when somebody asks me to rank my pain on a scale of one to ten.  The usual definition of ten-level pain is the worst pain you can imagine.  What exactly does that mean?  I can imagine some pretty horrific things, and the more pain I’ve experienced, the more pain I can imagine.  Is it possible to reach level ten pain?  And if you did, would you be able to actually, physically express it in words?  I rather imagine that level ten pain is at a place where I have pretty much lost the power of speech, am curled up in a fetal ball (or perhaps, thrashing), and communicate purely in moans, screams, and gestures.  But I think that all of my numbers have shifted higher now.  Level one is supposed to be no pain at all, and I’ll admit, I don’t know what that would feel like any more.  Most of the time, I rank my pain somewhere between five and eight, and sometimes it goes up to a nine.  But I’ll bet that my level five pain would be an eight or nine for many others.

I do wonder – these sick people that Jesus healed – how would they rank their pain?  The poor guy who was in so much pain that his friends lowered him through the roof – was his pain at nine or ten?  Paul’s emotional pain – where does it rank?  The pain in Jacob’s hip – how would he rank his pain?  How did he feel about those rankings before his injury, and after his injury?  What was his suffering like?  What kind of emotions overshadowed and layered with his physical pain?

Of course, now we come to that question: if God loves us so perfectly and completely, if God is all-powerful and all-knowing, then how can God allow us – God’s children – to suffer?  I don’t have the answer, and I believe that it is not possible for a human to have the answer to this question.  I don’t believe God wants us to suffer, but that suffering is just part of being human and living in this world.  I believe that our suffering grieves God, that God weeps when we weep, that God rejoices when we rejoice.  I also believe that God has the power to bring redemption to any suffering we experience.  We may not know what that redemption is for some time, and we may never know until we reach God’s kingdom.  The redemption of my suffering may not come to me, but to someone whose life touches mine.  But I know that redemption is God’s hand at work in the suffering.

I also believe that God has the power to relieve our suffering, to alleviate pain, to bring about a cure or a healing that would appear miraculous.  The issue is that we have to be ready for this, we have to be willing to be healed, and we have to allow God to bring this healing about within us.  Was Jacob ready for his hip to be healed?  Did he want it healed?  Did he never allow God to do that work within him?  Perhaps this deceiver was afraid that he would be deceived – yes, I’m actually posing the possibility that Jacob doubted God.  Some might find this blasphemous, but I know that Jacob was an actual, living, breathing human being, and I don’t believe that any actual, living, breathing human being who has walked the face of this earth has done so without ever doubting God, in some way.  The doubt may have been as simple as if I’m feeling this much pain, if God can heal us, then why hasn’t God made this pain stop yet?  Maybe God just… can’t. I know I’ve experienced that doubt before, and I’d bet large sums of money that anyone else who lives with chronic pain has as well.

So where is God in these lessons?  Of course, one flippant answer is, wherever you find God in these lessons… and it’s flippant, but true.  You may have had different words sing for you with God’s voice, and in one year or five years or twenty, you may have different words sing for you then, than sang for you today.  What I hear from these lessons is,

  • Jesus has compassion for us, and heals our sick.
  • And all ate and were filled, and there were many broken pieces left.
  • I call upon you, O God, because you will answer me.

It is good news.  We are loved.  We are cared for.  Our God has compassion on us and meets our needs.  We can call upon God, and God will answer us.  Even when we are suffering, even when we cannot imagine any more what it would feel like for the suffering to end.  We can wrestle with angels, and we can deceive our own brother and father, and we can clamor around an itinerant preacher who just wants to find some solitude… and God will still have compassion for us; God will still heal our sick.

So I will pray this prayer for myself, and for anyone who stops by to read this post.

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend this child of yours;
and, because this person cannot continue in safety without your help,
protect and govern your child always by your goodness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Amen.

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