A Sermon by the Very Reverend June Osborne DL
Sunday, 20 July 2014
Romans 8: v12-25
Matthew 13: v24-30, 36-43
Yesterday a very dear friend of mine had to move his wife from their marital home which they’d shared together for over 50 years to a nursing home. Her increasing frailty due to dementia means that her needs are more than he can cope with but he’s resisted this moment for several years and even now it’s profoundly difficult to have to face the inevitable.
He’s gone on caring for his wife longer than most of his family and friends have thought made sense, as they’ve watched his own health decline. Some of them see him as a victim of her tragic condition and they’ve urged him to find some kind of escape from the rigours of taking care of her: with some justification because there was a chance that trying to look after her would eventually kill him.
He meanwhile sees their shared plight differently. When I saw him a few weeks ago he described how he saw his care for his wife as an extension of their marriage vows. He had pledged himself ‘in sickness and in health’. And he also resisted a tragic interpretation of their situation. He confirmed what many of you will know from your own situations of hardship – that though he wished from the bottom of his heart that life hadn’t been like this, through the costliness of it he has found things he could not have known any other way. He gave testimony to the fact that suffering is more than merely pain to us.
Costly things in human life – vows held to, vocations pursued faithfully, suffering born – the effort and pain they ask of us is not all bad. Indeed what is asked of us often changes our character for the better, deepens our awareness of the mysteries of human life, and helps us let God be our only god.
As I listen to the emotional and spiritual anguish of people in pain I’m reminded again of the courage of the human spirit which quietly deals with things it does not want to face, challenges it wishes were not happening.
Yet I’m also aware of how contemporary approaches to human suffering unwittingly make it more difficult for us. Our two New Testament readings help to illustrate the way that occurs.
Firstly, from Romans chapter 8 we hear the Apostle Paul assert
‘I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us . . . We ourselves groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. We wait . . . with patience.’
Paul doesn’t dismiss our pain and suffering. We know that in Christ God shares our humanity and so he inhabits and shares our anguishes – our griefs, our disappointments, our longing that it were not so. The first thing the Christian faith offers my friend is compassion, an ability to see how much his suffering matters.
And yet Paul says to us that suffering is not the dominant reality. The New Testament in various places links the concepts of suffering and glory. Remember how Jesus says to the disciples on the Emmaus Road after his resurrection?
‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’
And in case we’re tempted to treat these as separate and independent realities – we bear the suffering now knowing that glory will come next in a future eternity – Paul says ‘in fact we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him’.
It seems to me that our society is good on the importance of compassion, on the moral obligation to relieve pain wherever we can. Yet it is also fundamentally anxious about suffering.
· Anxious because it allows itself to see suffering as the dominant reality in some people’s lives. If we’re not careful the adversity, disability or unhappiness we experience becomes our defining identity.
· And anxious because of our contemporary fixation on control: that we are what we choose: that our dignity and freedom comes to us through our ability to make independent choice including perhaps the choice of when to die. Few things are worse in our contemporary mind set than being a victim. By making decisions, determining the outcomes, exercising control we shape our identity. So adversity and suffering make us anxious not only because we fear the pains which come with them but because we fear being done to.
Whereas Paul’s talk of glory undermines that approach. When we glorify God we get in touch with his essential character, his identity. What we have in the promise of glory is our utterly fulfilled identity. Free not because we’re autonomous agents of choice but free because we’re children of God, made in his image, who can not only survive suffering but who can know it within God’s wider plan and purpose, introducing us to things we could not have known any other way. Suffering can be part of our journey to knowing who we truly are.
Which leads us to the parable Jesus told about the wheat and weeds which grew together in a field until harvest time when the weeds were destroyed and the wheat went on to become food for the tables of the community.
In Matthew chapter 13 Jesus tells 5 parables all of which, in one way or another, are an explanation as to why Jesus was rejected. Why is there ignorance, wilful rejection of what’s good in our world and what do we do with it? Why do men with surface to air missiles shoot down civilian aircraft filled with families going on holiday? This isn’t about personal and private suffering but Jesus helping us deal with the causes of a suffering world.
Jesus is fully aware that his disciples craved certainty in the face of their suffering. Again it’s our desire for control, this time in the face of uncertain consequences. We wish to be certain what is wheat and what is weeds. You know how it is that some people are ready to tell us with utter conviction that they know God’s mind or will. That always makes me nervous because I can hear Jesus saying ‘in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.’
Last weekend we had three Archbishops offer in our newspapers three different approaches to the Assisted Dying legislation. It’s a reminder that we live in a world of differing convictions about what is wheat and what are weeds. And a warning to beware those who claim to know definitively the mind of God as they could be indulging their desire for control or playing a big trump card to simply stop the conversation.
One of the people I’ve spoken with recently who has suffered a terrible tragedy was admitting how angry he is. Who was I to question the legitimacy of his anger, being the fruit of his suffering? All I could offer was that he needed to decide which part of being angry was good, an honest expression of his distress; and which anger was dark, destructive to the things he valued and so anger he was best without.
Jesus gives us a parable about how in this world, amidst our experience of suffering and knowing how our belief and unbelief also grow together with their roots intertwined, we will not be entirely sure what is reliably of God and what is destructive to human well-being. We can be confident that the final victory of God’s kingdom and our standing before God is assured. In the meantime our dominant reality is not suffering but grace, by which we obtain the freedom of the glory – that is the true identity - of the children of God.
The rest is an adventure of faith and hope, but at times an adventure navigating itself through costly pain. And for that we try our best to give thanks to God.