Melissa preaching via Zoom

Walking Toward Suffering

Melissa Florer-Bixler
Sermon from March 29, 2020 worship service, held via Zoom
John 11

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.

Walking Toward Suffering – March 29, 2020

On our third online worship service during the COVID-19 pandemic, Melissa had some technical challenges so presented her message without notes. The scripture was from John 11, the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead.

When Mary and Martha tell Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” Jesus doesn’t attempt to give them a philosophical answer or placate them with false hope. Instead, Jesus weeps.

Suffering is a Nothing. It’s a none reason, a nonsense. It’s not something that we can ever make sense of. The only answer to suffering is love. The only way through it is love.

After getting the full text of her message back during sharing time, Melissa read us the last paragraph of her prepared sermon:

“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.”

Walking Toward Suffering – March 29, 2020

 
 
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Melissa preaching via Zoom

The Inability to See – March 22, 2020

We all met from our homes via Zoom as the second week apart due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Melissa preached from John 9:1-41.

This is a time of anxiety and fear, but it’s also a time for us to sift through our own lives and for us to think about what it will be like to put things back together. What new thing is God doing among us? Listen for it in unexpected places or from unexpected people.

The Inability to See – March 22, 2020

 
 
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Melissa preaching at Fletcher to a Zoom audience

Good News at the Margins – March 15, 2020

On this first Sunday we streamed our service rather than meet in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Melissa preached from John 4:5-42. A small group met at Fletcher to lead worship.

“These are unusual and difficult times. But these are opportunities for us to both be and to receive good news. To let our lives be hope, and to listen to where we have new ways to encounter God’s work.”

Good News at the Margins – March 15, 2020

 
 
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Ronda preaching at RMC on March 8, 2020

He Visited Me – March 8, 2020

John 3:1-17

We had the honor of having Ronda Singletary bring the message this morning. Ronda was recently released from the women’s prison and shared her powerful testimony, including poetry that she wrote.

The recording starts with Sus Long leading the congregation in the song written by and for the women she has worked with, “God of Every Daughter.” Ronda joins her for “His Eye is on the Sparrow” before Ronda brings her message. It closes with Ronda reciting “Reality.”

“Though I walk through the valley of sexual abuse, mental wounds and prison walls, I no longer fear evil.”


Ronda and Sus lead the congregation in a song, with Sus playing guitar.

He Visited Me – March 8, 2020

 
 
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Melissa Florer-Bixler preaching at RMC service Feb. 2, 2020

Bread as Life – Feb. 9, 2020

John 6:25-40, I Corinthians 11:23-26, 12:12, 24-27

Melissa continued the series on communion, focusing today on the role of bread. How bread comes to be is significant, from the grains to the yeast that acts as leavening. In many ways, we are bread.

How do we break ourselves open to be made whole?
How do we find ourselves crushed, in order to be joined into God’s bread of life?

Bread as Life – Feb. 9, 2020
A Year at the Table

 
 
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Stan Wilson preaching at RMC on Jan. 5, 2020

Not Belonging – Jan. 5, 2020

John 1, Matthew 2:1-12

Stan Wilson provided the sermon this morning. Drawing from Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Stan says to be true to our Christian vocation, we need to “not belong.” For the church to not belong, we need to be part of a community that is called to embrace the wholeness and fullness of Christ. We are strangers in an inhumane world. Christians have a calling to not belong in this nation, or any nation, if the lines are drawn to privilege certain ethnic identities, or if the state exists to prop up corporate power against human beings, or to imprison and not restore offenders of the law.

It is life giving to learn where you don’t belong.

Not Belonging – Jan. 5, 2020

 
 
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Hans preaching at RMC July 14, 2019

God has spoken to us – July 14, 2019

John 1:1-5, Hebrews 1:1-4

Hans brought the message to us this morning with his typical good humor.
We don’t always hear God speaking to us. The Bible shows many different ways God is revealed to and works through God’s people. Sometimes God speaks immediately upon request, but not often.

We need to be mindful, paying attention, and open to messages even when those messages may not be what we want to hear.

God has spoken to us – July 14, 2019

 
 
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Melissa preaching Nov. 25, 2018

The Kin-dom of Christ – Nov. 25, 2018

In the 37 times that Jesus describes the reign of God in the Gospels, not once is the kingdom of God like a kingdom of earth. Each time, Jesus tells them stories. Over and over again he roots the liberation of God in ordinary life, in what happens around us, not in throne rooms with princes and crowns but in baking bread and sowing seeds.

Melissa’s sermon was based on John 18:33-37.  She also has a version of it online at https://sojo.net/articles/kin-dom-christ

 

The Kin-dom of Christ – Nov. 25, 2018

 
 

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Melissa speaking at RMC on April 8, 2018

The Foolishness of God’s Senseless Love – April 8, 2018

This was “holy humor” Sunday and Melissa started out her message with a joke before getting into the story told in John 20:19-31. Just as Jesus met Thomas, Jesus meets us where we’re at. Faith is not something you come to on your own. It takes many different forms and in every single one of them, doubt is part of the mix.

The most foolish thing we believe is that you were created for no other reason than for love. You do not have to do anything at all to be loved. We’re utterly convinced that when you are confused and you can’t quite get your beliefs in line, when your head and heart collide, that Jesus is making a way to you.  You don’t need to do anything at all to be loved. You don’t have to earn your way to some great reward. But’s that’s ridiculous! Or at least that’s what the world thinks.

The Foolishness of God’s Senseless Love – April 8, 2018
Raleigh Mennonite Church Sermons

 
 

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Placing flowers on the cross, Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018

Making Contact – April 1, 2018

Melissa preaching at RMC on Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018John 20:1-18

Prior to Melissa’s sermon on this Easter Sunday, Pam read the poem, “Christ as a Gardener” by Andrew Hudgins.

Mary returns to the tomb Jesus had been laid in after she and the two disciples found it empty. She’s weeping. Then she sees these angels. Then there’s this gardener. He had to have been there all along, hadn’t he? She’s begging him to tell her what he saw. “Where is the body of Jesus?!?” She can’t see it’s him…until he says her name. “Mary.” And her eyes are opened.

We wait beside tombs, because that is where he says he’ll show up. Where love leads us back, without reason, and often without hope. God will show up where there is nothing left but devastation, where there is no way out or where no one else is coming. It’s here, waiting here, where our grief at the pain inflicted by the world will break open. And we’ll discover the one who is there calling us by name.  Jesus is there, who makes contact.

As a closing for the message, we listened to the song “Down in the River to Pray,” sung by Abu Ali, followed by the video “Wait for It” by Shellee Layne Coley

Making Contact – April 1, 2018
Raleigh Mennonite Church Sermons

 
 

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The Whole World Has Gone After Him – March 25, 2018

Artwork by Luz Frye of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey. John 12:9-19 and Zechariah 9:9-13

On this Palm Sunday Melissa told us about the Alexamenos graffito. Due to some technical issues, the beginning of her sermon is cut off.

Jesus isn’t interested in re-imagining the structures or reinforcing nationalism. Instead, the whole world has gone after him, as it says in the Gospel of John. Jesus has come for the world. Liberation isn’t just for Israel or the Jews; it’s for everyone.  That looks like failure in our world. A failure of too much love. Love expanding to those we may not want to be loved.

We’re challenged to take a little time this week to search out our lives to find where we’ve made Jesus too small, where we’ve made something–or someone–unredeemable. Because when we return next week, it will be Easter!

 

The Whole World Has Gone After Him – March 25, 2018
Raleigh Mennonite Church Sermons

 
 

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Melissa Florer-Bixler preaching at Raleigh Mennonite Feb. 18, 2018

A Conversation about Jesus’ Death – March 18, 2018

Melissa changed up the format a little this Sunday for her sermon. Speaking from John 19:1-16a about Jesus’ trial and condemnation to death, she provided an introduction then invited the congregation to help answer the age-old question, “Why did Jesus die?”  There have been multiple perspectives or understandings of why Jesus was crucified. We interpret scripture together in community.

In the Gospel of John we see that Jesus dies not for our sins but because of our sins. He refuses to protect himself from the world. Jesus is love, and the world kills him for it.

 

A Conversation about Jesus’ Death – March 18, 2018
Raleigh Mennonite Church Sermons

 
 

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Melissa Florer-Bixler preaching at Raleigh Mennonite Feb. 18, 2018

The Banality of Evil – March 11, 2018

Before Melissa’s sermon, we listened to Billie Holiday’s rendition of the haunting song “Strange Fruit.”  The sermon was based on John 18:28-40, about Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate.

Crucifixions were a common thing during Roman rule. They served not so much as death penalties as they were a form of social control.  Bodies on crosses were strategically placed at crossroads to remind the people of the power of Rome to crush their dreams for freedom. In that way, they were more like the lynchings that took so many black men’s lives in the Jim Crow south than they were modern forms of capital punishment. “Every cross is a lynching tree, and every lynching tree is a cross,” wrote James Cone.  Jesus’ trial was like so many trials of black men during that era: a sham.

Pilate plays a pivotal role in the trial, even though he was just trying to find middle ground, going between the religious officials and Jesus. He was just trying to do his job. Something many of us try to do as we navigate our circumstances.

 

The Banality of Evil – March 11, 2018
Raleigh Mennonite Church Sermons

 
 

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