Back when we entered this season, the congregation of which I’m a part embarked on a series of Mid-Week Reflections on Luther’s Marks of the Church. One week after Ash Wednesday, March 4th, I spoke about the Mark of Suffering, little guessing what the unfolding month would bring. By the end of the month, we were no longer congregating for worship as part of the physical distancing and safer at home practices encouraged to support our public health and collective well-being. The things I said that night, expanded as we face a difficult transition from Lent to Easter, form the basis of this post …
Here we are, near the end of Lent, at the final chapter of the of the gospel drama that shapes Holy Week and its final Three Days … the time when the sufferings of Jesus are front and center in Christian reflections on the life of Jesus. Here we are, many of us still in the physical distancing and safer at home efforts aimed at reducing the spread of a new virus, SARS-CoV-2 … a virus that is new to human beings, at any rate. We may never know how long it lived exclusively in animal populations or which animals served as earlier hosts for the virus. However it made the jump from lesser animals to humans, the virus is now spreading rapidly in human populations around the world. None of us has immunity to this; we become immune only by contracting the virus and successfully fighting off the infection. Some of us may have no indications we were infected at any point. Some will be very sick and need life-saving drastic interventions in the ICUs of our local hospitals. Most people will likely be somewhere in between. But until you have it, you won’t know how this will play out in your own body … and among those you care about and love.
As one wildly popular meme has it: “This is the Lentiest Lent I have ever Lented.” The season of Lent, with the emphasis on suffering and sacrifice, ends with the celebration of the Easter resurrection. Although we’re almost to Easter on the liturgical calendar, for the communities around us, the sacrifices for the sake of public health and the suffering – whether it’s someone known to be infected or struggling with a terrible case of COVID-19 or the various sufferings arising from lost income due to sidelined business during this time of shut-down and self-isolation – whatever form it takes, the suffering will continue long after Easter.
At Easter, we speak of themes of resurrection: the end of death … a glorious surprise so big and profound we could never have dreamed it possible … weeping and sorrow changed to dancing and joy. Yet, the death rate from COVID-19 will continue to run high well after Easter. People we know and love will be touched by this: loved ones seriously ill with all manner of ailments in the hospital and we are unable to visit … people dying in ICUs or care centers and we are unable to be with them in their final moments … next of kin forced to choose from burial options that do not conform to loved ones’ final wishes or our own preferences … funerals and customs of mourning disrupted by constraints on numbers permitted to attend. It’s like Maundy Thursday and Good Friday … but then Easter is still an unknown future event, not just two days off.
In times like this … especially among those of us who have never really known deprivation, accustomed more to self-sufficiency and comfortable ease, able to go about our lives as we wished (more or less), able to do for ourselves, provide for ourselves … times ripe with fear, for ourselves and our loved ones, uncertainty about when this all we be over and if the old normal can ever return and if not, then what? … in these times, we need an Easter that is not just a well-loved, well-told tale but an Easter that is anything but the usual way of things – an Easter that is not what was expected to happen, but what should not have happened and yet, somehow did. To get to that kind of Easter, we need a truly suffering, painfully crucified, dead, laid in the grave and buried Jesus. The kind of Jesus alluded to in the fourth and last of the Servant Songs in the Book of Isaiah: The Song of the Suffering Servant.
While all the Servant Songs of Isaiah include some element of suffering and rejection, it is in this fourth song in Chapter 53 that the theme of suffering is strongest. Like the other Servant Songs, this song was first heard among the exiles of Judah who had returned to their ancestral homeland after captivity in Babylon. Suffice it to say, what they came home to was not the home they had been encouraged to picture during their lives as exiles. The idyllic vision of a land of promise had been proven to be ruined mess. “What are we doing here?” they cried; “what good is there in this devastation?” The song of the prophet is, in part, God’s response to their cries. The suffering of this servant people will yet bring forth God’s good purpose.
Early Christian writers took this theme of the servant of God who suffers much in himself in order to bring about a blessing to many and applied it to the story of Jesus. There is much in this that fits – the rejection, the physical beatings, the perversion of justice, the dying. These sufferings form key pieces of the story as we trace it each year through the season of Lent:
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we considered him stricken, struck down by God and afflicted. …
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.
They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. ~ Isaiah 50:3-4, 7-8
Suffering is something we typically resist until there is just no avoiding it. More than just the obvious fact the pleasant is always the more preferable option to the painful, most of us are culturally conditioned to believe that we should not have to suffer at all. Perhaps along with the listing of pursuit of happiness among the inalienable rights of humanity in the Declaration of Independence there is also an implicit right to be free from suffering. We may not have all we need (or want) in order to be happy, but surely we ought to be relatively free from suffering, right? But yet, as Christians, we are followers of a Jesus who suffered – who did not resist or fight against the suffering but embraced it and fully entered into it (“leaned in,” we might say.) This the example we have been given … so, in the classic question from the Small Catechism: What does this mean?
In as much as the Church is called out and called together to be the physical Body of Christ on earth, and Christ Jesus suffered in his body while on earth, suffering is a part of being Church, being the people of God. In so far as the Church is also called to the same task the people called out by God have always been called to do: be a channel of blessing through which God blesses the world. And passing on the blessing means letting at least some of that blessing go on to others … and letting go means losing out at least a little (in other words, suffering) … so it follows that the Church is called to suffer in order to do the work God gives it to do. Furthermore, because the Church is called to live out the ways of the Reign and Realm of God rather than follow the ways of the world, to the extent the ways of the world diverge from the ways of God, the Church and the people who comprise the Church are going to suffer because when you’re not doing the same dance step as everyone else, your toes are going to get stepped on … people are going to push back when you step on theirs … and if you’re not where you’re expected to be in the dance, you may very well get hit by a swinging arm, unintentionally if not deliberately. You are going to get hit. You are going to get stepped on. You are going to get hurt. That’s just the way of things.
Let me make one thing crystal clear in all of this: God calls no one to suffer simply for the sake of suffering. Jesus did not suffer and die just to show that suffering is a good or desirable thing. It isn’t; suffering simply to suffer is never a good thing. Jesus suffered and died for the sake of radical love that was out to change the world. As followers of Jesus, as members of the body of Christ, as Church, we are called to that same kind of suffering: suffering out of love in order to bring about positive change. If you are suffering for anything less than that, if no change is coming about as a result of your suffering, you need to stop that, get out of that, let it go. The only kind of suffering any Christian is called to do is suffering that produces a positive change, that moves the situation a little closer to what God intends for people and for all of creation.
Around the time we started into Lent, there was the commemoration of the fifty-fifth anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” events in Selma, Alabama, the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This march was instigated after a previous march in the area to protest an act of injustice had led to the killing of one of the protesters. Those who marched on that subsequent Sunday in Selma knew there could be trouble. They’d been warned not to do this; they’d been told not only would there be no protection for the marchers, law enforcement had been authorized to do whatever was necessary to stop the march. But they went anyway, knowing what would happen.
And they suffered for it. When talking about that day, now Representative John Lewis freely admits he thought he would die. He was beaten so badly he very well might have. Seventeen people were admitted to hospitals; fifty more were treated for injuries and released. This could have been just more suffering for the sake of suffering, accomplishing nothing, changing nothing. But news crews were there. When the films of the violence were shown on the televisions in living rooms around the country, when the photos of beaten, injured protestors were displayed on the front pages of papers unfolded at breakfast tables, people were understandably shocked. Lots of people saw a need for things to change … and you know the rest of the story, eventually change happened. The suffering had a redemptive purpose; it made the people and the world around them different, better … not perfect, but better than it had been. This is what suffering for the sake of God’s radical love that is out to change the world looks like.
In this time and this place, for many of us, the suffering we are called to is that of releasing privileges – learning to tolerate inconvenience, making do with less, waiting our turn instead of grabbing first place and top spots as though these perks are rightfully due to us. It is madness to suppose an economy built of excessive over-consumption, acquiring more and more stuff with near-term obsolescence built in by design is sustainable in any way, shape, or form. These complex systems cannot be reordered in a day and they will not be reordered without pain and sacrifice on the parts of those who are benefitting from the current situation. It is insane to suppose that next-day delivery of anything to anywhere can be done free of cost. You might not pay for it with your money, but the people involved in getting it to you and the environment are paying the price. It is lunacy to make calories cheap and nutrition expensive and make the health care to offset the damage of cheap empty calories inaccessible to those who suffer because they cannot afford what would keep them healthy. And it is becoming increasingly obvious a very few among us have been hoarding money and resources the way far more have taken to hoarding toilet paper lately. If those of us who are benefiting from the current systems continue to assert the privileges of our place in society … if we don’t sit down and shut up and let the suffering ones have a place and say the truth of their experiences, especially when it hurts like hell to hear it, our world will continue to move farther from God’s dream of a world in which all life is flourishing.
That is what we’re called to as Church, as the called-out people of God who are blessed in order that through us, God will bless and heal the world. It does mean that sometimes we are going to be out of step with the world around us … and we will suffer as a result. Right now, everyone is suffering. Many of us Christians are suffering because we cannot be together with others in our congregation, cannot worship in the familiar comfort of our sanctuaries, joining our voices with those of congregants dear to us, even gather with our extended families to celebrate any festive occasion. These sufferings are hardly unique; everyone around us is suffering much the same … and some even worse.
When will end? When will change come? When will it really feel like we’re out of the tomb and the shadow of death and the Easter resurrection can be felt again? I don’t know, but it won’t happen April 12th. This year we will be waiting much longer than three days to have much of what we associate with Easter joy, some sense that the world has been put back to rights … if it ever gets put back to rights. What will be is as much a question as when it will happen because, whatever “normal” emerges, it will be different from what we knew before.
Those first followers of Jesus didn’t exactly know that a resurrection was coming or for certain when it might be. Yes, in the Gospels, Jesus does try to tell them what’s going to happen, that it will be three days. But there are also plenty of indications the followers weren’t really hearing him, didn’t understand what he meant. Likewise, when the resurrection time for this era comes, it might not take the form we expect … and we might have to wait longer than we think.
But in the meantime, we do have a part to play in helping to shape the world that emerges so that is moves a little bit closer to God’s dream of how it can be: all are welcomed, all are cared for, there is life and healing and comfort and plenty for all. In order to do that, we have to engage with and enter into the suffering of these times. We got this! Christian people have done so before in times of communal suffering, through plagues and other disasters and societal dis-ease. We can, too – because Jesus Christ died and rose again.