Sermon from March 29, 2020 worship service, held via Zoom
The spoken version of the message, without notes, is also available on the podcast.
One of the parts of our faith that is most important to me is the affirmation that God has something to do with the world. And if God has something to do with the world, then God has something to do with things not going well in the world.
These two things being true hardly answer our most pressing questions. What does God have to do with this world? That’s a lot harder for us. Once we start to answer it, we’ll usually discover the answer is insufficient.
Are bad things that happen in our world a result of people sinning? Well, no. We’ve heard that over the past couple weeks in our Gospel readings. “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” Neither, Jesus responds.
Is God hands-off of creation, watching from a distance? No, that doesn’t seem to be the case either.
Can we blame God for terrible things happening in our world? Could God stop it all if God wanted to?
Try to answer and the answer comes up short. Something is off.
But I’m grateful that this hasn’t stopped people in the Bible from expressing anger and frustration at God for the state of the world.
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help?
How long, O Lord, will you look on and do nothing? Rescue me from their fierce attacks. Protect my life from these lions!
“O God my rock,” I cry, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I wander around in grief, oppressed by my enemies?”
So we shouldn’t be surprised to see Martha welling up with a mix of faithfulness to her friend, Jesus, and frustration and anger at his slow response to their need for help with their brother, Lazarus.
Not once, not twice, but three times the question that haunts us is given words, is dared to breathed aloud:
“If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This is repeated by both sisters, Martha and Mary. Then it is said again by grumbling neighbors: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?””
Jesus response is not an explanation or a defense. Jesus does not silence them for their impertinence. The fact that the text preserves the question three times invites us to ask it. Our thoughts are read into the text. As a response Jesus does not try to calm them down with promises. He doesn’t offer to placate them with the hope he knows fully. He doesn’t tell Mary to back off or to remember her place.
Instead Jesus does something that he will only do once in all four accounts we have of his life on earth. Jesus weeps.
Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury says that people often ask him to explain suffering. “They don’t really mean it,” Williams writes. Can you imagine if, in the midst of terrible disaster and trauma someone said, “‘Sit down for a moment and I’’ll explain the universe to you, and you will see why there’s no problem at all.” My friend Chantelle once said something to me that I return to again and again when I think of suffering. “There is no explanation for your suffering that is sufficient,” she told me. There is nothing rational that will make you feel better about the loss of a child or a painful chronic illness. It is a Nothing. It is meaninglessness itself. It is anti-creation, anti-explanation, anti-reason.
Martha and Mary’s anger is a protest against this. It is rage against the Nothing, the disorder and dis-ease of the universe. And they know where to bring this anger and frustration. They entrust it to Jesus.
This is counter-intuitive – the most robust faith is one that makes space to bring, in fact to hurl this anger at God. To think that God is in the mix is to believe in God. To think that God has something to do with pain is to trust that God has disappointed us. Mary and Martha speak to Jesus with expectation, and expectation that comes from their love and their experience of who he is.
If you are looking for a messiah who will offer you a philosophical treatise on suffering, you will not find that here in Christianity. If you are looking for a messiah who silences questioners and demands blind allegiance, you will not find that here. If you are looking for a messiah who offers suffering as an end in itself, who pulls out lessons from your trauma, you will not find that here.
Here you will find a messiah who weeps. You will find God who gets into the mess, into the terror and trauma with us. You will find God who walks his own life towards death in his son. But before that you will find him walking towards the places where his beloved has died and falling down and weeping there.
The only answer to suffering is love. The only way through it is love. The only healing from it is love. And Jesus body is the enfolding of love into this world, the yeast of love working its way into creation.
I don’t meant that sentimentally, as if good feelings or positive thoughts directed into the universe are the way to dampen our terror. I mean that today doctors are showing up to hospitals where they don’t have adequate equipment to protect themselves from disease. I mean that people show up to soup kitchens and homeless shelters at great risk to themselves. I mean that people put their bodies on the line to bring groceries to neighbors and to care for people who have no caregivers.
There is immense suffering ahead of us, still. I do not want to deceive you by offering false hope or platitudes. But I also know this – there is great love ahead, love so immense that it will take your breath away.