1 Peter 3:13-22
Click here to watch the sermon, Suffer.
Perhaps one of the more frequently asked questions people have when it comes to faith has to do with suffering. The fancy word for this is Theodicy and it is born of an unresolvable triangle of propositions. First, that God is good. Second, that God is all-powerful. And third, that evil, or suffering exists. That third one gets tricky depending on how a person defines what is evil. To my mind, evil suggests some level of agency and intention. So, for instance, you might hear someone call cancer evil. It is certainly bad. And if you’ve known anyone who has had to battle a form of cancer, you are aware of the kind of pain and suffering that it creates. But is it evil? It’s a mutation of cells in the body. Does cancer itself have agency? It is what it is and cannot really choose to be otherwise, so it’s not like there’s intention behind the damage it does. But no matter how you define evil, it is hard to square its existence with the first two propositions. If an all-powerful God is good, then how does one account for cancer? Or hurricanes, or wildfires, or any number of other disasters that hurt and destroy? If you’re waiting for me to come up with an answer to that question, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Smarter people than me have tried and failed to one degree or another. In fact, there’s a whole book in the bible dedicated to this question and the arguments that surround it. And the form of the Hebrew language that makes up the bulk of the book of Job suggests that it is one of the oldest writings in scripture. Meaning, it is one of the oldest questions that people of faith ask. How do we reconcile the things that cause us to suffer with our faith in a God who should be able to do something about it, but who doesn’t appear to?
In one sense, suffering is always with us. To live is to suffer, eventually. That just comes with the territory. And it isn’t always bad. I can remember reading a story about a child who had a neurological condition that has short-circuited her pain receptors. She couldn’t feel pain. At least not in the way that you or I might. So, as a result, she had to be checked every day when she came off the playground at school for possible injury. She had to be checked because she could very well injure herself and not know it, not feel it. Unchecked, she could suffer a broken bone or cut that would lead to infection and much more serious complications to her health. You see, it turns out that we need to feel a little pain in order to know when something is not right. The old saying goes, “no pain, no gain.” Without pain, we might never seek to make things better.
There was already plenty of suffering in the world before the COVID-19 pandemic turned everything upside down. Truth be told, the restrictions brought on by the virus to limit its spread have brought some of that suffering to light, and in some ways they have compounded it. When schools were closed, we had to come to terms with the students who might go hungry without the breakfast and lunch they received during the school week; some of the same families we’ve been supporting at Longfellow Elementary with food bags for the weekend when they’re not in school. But with somewhere in the neighborhood of 36 million people filing for unemployment since stay-at-home orders went into effect, we know that there has been and likely will be even greater suffering to come.
An old housemate of mine from college is a fairly successful working actor out in California. He’s a pretty funny guy who amuses himself and others with short videos he posts to social media. Just this week he put one up of himself as a woman talking about having watched all the programming on Netflix, HBO, Showtime and Hulu while in quarantine. “I need to find something else to watch,” his character laments, “or I’m going to have to start noticing my life.” It’s funny. It’s also got more than a kernel of truth to it. Some people will go to great lengths to avoid suffering. But no matter how hard we try to avoid it, eventually suffering finds us. Or we find it.
The early church was well-acquainted with its own form of suffering. Christian communities weren’t always welcome. Some had been kicked out of their Jewish circles, and a great many more were viewed with suspicion by the Greco-Roman culture for the ways they eschewed its civil religion. As the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson famously observed many hundreds of years later, “for nonconformity, the world whips you with its displeasure.” Christians who failed to conform with their surrounding culture were often whipped. Some literally, others in the figurative sense. That is often the price we pay for doing what we trust to be right. There is the suffering that comes to us for no good reason; a global pandemic created by an easily transmitted virus capable of doing sometimes fatal damage to the lungs. There is the suffering that comes from our own poor decision making, risky behaviors that we knowingly engage in anyway. But the author of this letter suggests that the suffering that we experience for doing what we trust is right, what is faithful, just and true; that kind of suffering is blessed. That kind of suffering finds us in solidarity with our savior, Jesus, who suffered trusting that through it something would change. And it did.
Now we probably need to exercise a measure of restraint in likening the suffering of early Christians and the suffering of Christ with having to wear a mask in public, keep our distance, and staying put at home if we fall into the category of people considered to be at risk. But these things over time do represent a kind of hardship. Some are feeling that hardship more than others. However, if all the best science suggests that continuing to do these things will minimize the risk of transmitting the virus and causing infection for those who may experience the effects of this virus most severely, then we must trust that continuing in these practices is the right thing to do. The hardship, the sadness, the difficulty that come from doing what we know is right, this scripture tells us, will be blessed. It will be blessed because to do so is to act out of the love we have for one another. To do so is to put the well-being of those who are most vulnerable above our own personal desires or convenience. To do so is to, in our own way, trust that it will change the trajectory of this pandemic and reduce the threat it poses to us all.
This past week I asked friends of mine on Facebook to share what was giving them hope right now. The answers were great and included things like dance parties with toddlers and making music with kids home from college. Many spoke of the ways they are finding to connect across the imposed distancing, through phone calls, Zoom gatherings and cards sent to friends. There were the delights of cake and croissants, rosé and Trader Joe’s scotch. So many mentioned their family, both the ones they were stuck with in isolation and the ones offering encouragement from afar. There was an appreciation for the gifts of nature and the re-birth of spring. So much to give us hope in the midst of the hardship and suffering.
The writer of this letter commends the community to always be ready to give a defense for the hope that is within them. Be ready, because we do not fear what others fear. Following the guidelines for keeping each other safe over the coming months isn’t about fear. It’s about doing what is right out of the love that we are commanded to have for one another; a love that is willing to lay down its own claims and comforts for the health and safety of another. We do not fear the hardship that may result, because in doing what is right not only will we be blessed, but we will be a blessing by reducing the chance of spreading this virus and infecting someone who may not be able to fight it. Beyond all the comforts, connections and goodness that indeed are all around us, the hope that is within us, the hope that enables us to suffer and endure and be blessed is the hope that we find in Christ, whose own experience shows us that suffering of that kind is not the end of the story. It’s still Easter friends, and our risen Lord has shown us what lies beyond suffering. It is the blessing of life and life abundant that comes from trusting and following what is right. It is the blessing of resurrection that saves us from our fears and raises us up to something entirely new. That is what gives us hope. Now, and always. Alleluia, amen.