Proper 24, Year B
October 22, 2000
Old Saint Paul’s, Baltimore
The Rev. Timothy E. Schenck
Have you ever noticed how the lessons that pop up on a given Sunday so often seem to reflect what’s going on in the world? I hesitate to call this dumb luck because it happens time and time again. But there are times when national or international events coincide and seem to converse with our Sunday Scripture lessons. Suffering has been in the news lately and suffering seems to be touching the lives of an unusual number of those in our own parish community. There has been suffering in the Middle East as conflict rages between our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters; there has been suffering caused by terrorism for the crew members and families of the USS Cole; there has been suffering for the families of two local police officers killed by a drunk driver; and, truth be told, we have all had to suffer through yet another presidential debate.
In particular it’s interesting that the lectionary brings up this passage from Isaiah – many of the words are familiar because it’s what we hear on Good Friday. It’s a passage in which Christians have long heard the echoes of Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, his death, and passion. “Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth…surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases…he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” The image of Jesus as the suffering servant is a powerful one. Christ suffered death upon the cross and we too suffer in various ways throughout our lives.
But God does not intend us to suffer. We weren’t created in order to suffer. Our suffering is not due to some sort of sinfulness on our part. We are not the cause of our suffering and neither is God the cause of our suffering. It’s hard to say why one person suffers from cancer, another from depression, another from a broken heart, another from grief. It’s not enough to just paraphrase that popular bumper sticker and say ‘suffering happens.’ Sometimes we have to acknowledge that evil does exist in this world and suffering is the result. But sometimes we must also acknowledge that through pain and suffering, God speaks to us and is revealed in new ways. We can’t always see it at the time – the pain and anguish of the moment often clouds our very relationship with God. And sometimes we never see it. But we must believe that through Christ’s incarnation, through God’s entering the world in human form we are not alone in our suffering: Christ is with us. Our own human perspective is limited, of course. We can’t fully know God’s perspective and we can’t fully understand why things happen to us and to those around us. There is such mystery in our relationship with God and this mystery can be immensely frustrating for people who like to know all and be in control of every situation, which we all do to some extent. All we can hold onto and know for sure is that God never abandons us even in our most profound times of suffering. We may very well have moments when we feel forsaken by God, moments when we cry out with Jesus “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” But as God was with Jesus even in the agony of the cross, God is with us in our darkest moments of doubt and pain. We can’t escape our human perspective but we can try to trust God and accept God’s perspective even when we can’t see it or understand it.
The disciples in our Gospel reading this morning have a classic clash of perspective. James and John want Jesus to reserve for them a place of honor in heaven. When they ask to sit at his left and his right, they’re concerned with human status and rank but don’t understand that Jesus doesn’t operate this way. God doesn’t rank us, we’re not assigned a number, heaven is not a place where hierarchy dominates. Rather, it’s a place to which we are all invited, all included, all welcome. Our calling is to be faithful; it’s not to worry about our status or rank. We all stumble along the way and we all suffer along the way. To be human means that we will endure suffering. But if we trust in God’s perspective, if we allow ourselves to follow the way of the cross, our suffering will be relieved. Maybe not immediately, maybe not in our earthly existence, but it will be relieved.
How we react to suffering has an awful lot to do with our perspective on life. As a high school history teacher of mine once pointed out, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” Perspective is important. I had an interesting lesson in this about a month ago. You’ll notice the pew cards in front of you that allow visitors or newcomers to let us know they’ve been to Old St. Paul’s and hold out an opportunity for us to contact them and share some information about the parish. (And if you’re visiting, we’d love you to fill one out!). Well, what you see is an updated version of the pew card that we put together and after I picked them up at the printer I walked them over here to drop them off. Just as I was getting ready to leave, a torrential downpour started. Never having been in the Boy Scouts, I was simply not prepared. I didn’t have an umbrella and I really didn’t feel like getting drenched. So I stayed here and I began to replace the old pew cards with the new ones. I started slowly, figuring that I’d do a couple of rows until the rain let up. But it didn’t; so I continued. I walked into each pew, hung the pew card on one of those little hooks, listened to the rain pelt against the metal roof, and thought about perspective. Each seat in each pew has a slightly different perspective from the next one over. One seat is not better than another, just different. Each seat allows the worshipper a slightly different angle, a slightly different perspective. If you sit towards the back you get a broad view of the entire space. If you sit near the front the altar and liturgical ministers are visible in greater detail. If you sit on the south side you’ll get one view of the preacher, if you sit on the north side you’ll get a different view. Each seat has its blind spots and each seat has its clear sight lines. And, yes, I even found a seat where you can see neither the altar nor the pulpit, but I’m not telling where it is!
Now I realize that I can be a creature of habit. When I go to my favorite restaurant I’m probably going to get the same dish I always get. It’s good, it’s safe, I know what I’m getting, and I like it. Why should I change my order? The same often goes for where we sit in church. This is my pew, I’m used to it, I like this perspective. Here’s a challenge for you: next Sunday or next month or sometime, try sitting somewhere else in the church. I know this might be a radical concept for some of us and you can always go back to your regular pew, but try sitting somewhere completely different for a change. Not just because it’s a novelty but because it’s a metaphor for gaining a new perspective. If you sit up front, try the back; if you sit in the back, try the front. If you always sit on the south side, drag yourself over to the north side. (This doesn’t apply to the choir by the way.)
Perspective relates to suffering because it challenges us to determine how we’ll respond to adversity. Will we abandon the faith or let suffering draw us closer to the God who is present with us, grieves with us, bleeds with us, and weeps with us? If some of our human perspective is sacrificed we can open ourselves more fully to the hope and life-giving presence that comes from God’s perspective. And to gain this perspective, it doesn’t matter at all whether we sit on the left or the right.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2000