22 October 2006

How to Transform Suffering and Death

29th Sunday OT: Isa 53.10-11; Hebrews 4.14-16; Mark 10.35-45
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Paul’s Hospital and Church of the Incarnation

PODCAST!
Think about how we avoid discomfort, suffering, and death. To avoid discomfort we have invented air conditioning, bucket seats, padded shoes, thermal underwear, and even complex social manners to avoid awkward moments at parties and in public restrooms. To avoid suffering we have invented philosophies that deny evil, political utopias where no one is rich or poor, and religions that believe suffering is as an effect of desire and so we must eliminate desire. To avoid death we have invented material immortalities: surgeries, pharmaceuticals, diets, exercises, genetic therapies, nanotechnologies. To avoid death we have also invented ways of creating and re-creating ourselves out of death, or beyond it—the beautiful immortalities of art, literature, monument, heroism, memory, music.

How much of our daily living is about avoiding discomfort, suffering, and death? Better question: as members of the Body of Christ, heirs to the Father’s Kingdom, are we called to avoid discomfort, suffering, and death? Is this part of our ministry as disciples, as apostles? When is sacrificial service NOT about discomfort, suffering, and death?

Isaiah sets us up to understand exactly how suffering—willingly taking on pain for a godly purpose—is essential to sacrificial service: “If he gives his life as an offering for sin…the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him. Because of his affliction he shall see the light in fullness of days; through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.” Note these three: “if he gives his life,” “because of his affliction,” and “through his suffering.” And note the progression: the Lord’s servant freely offers himself for the sin of others…he sees the light in fullness b/c of this sacrificial service…and through his suffering—his willing acceptance of our sin for a higher purpose—the servant brings many to righteousness. He justifies us before the Lord. In other words, because he was discomforted, b/c he suffered, b/c he died, we do not have to. We are instead comforted, free of anxious worry, and we may live eternally.

So, if this is true—and it is—why then do we still work so hard to avoid discomfort, run so fast from suffering, and dodge the death of repentance so arduously? We do not want to be last. We are creatures of Firsts—first across the line, at the top of our game, highest score, fastest time, strongest lift, best grade, first prize, deepest soul, lightest spirit, hardest body…all to weaken, all to weaken and fade, all to weaken and fade and die. Dust. Shade. Snap of an echo. Gone.

Who wants to be a servant? Who wants the work of serving others? There is no glamour there, no applause, no dramatic ovation or spray of roses. It’s humble grubbing, embarrassing effort that makes someone’s life better but it just gives me wet armpits, dirty hands, a sore back, and a logjam on my own homework or my TIVO watching. Surely, it is better to be served; better to be first and not last; a Master and not a slave. It is!

If you will be in this world and of it, then you are morally obligated to pursue the best, the first, the highest. To be in and of the world is to be in and of the virtues the world holds up as Good. To be otherwise is suicide. You must honor the bottom-line. Praise efficiency. Worship at the altar of productivity. Practice winner-take-all competition. Lose the losers. Appeal to no power mightier than civil law. Here’s your bumper sticker: “If you have yours, I can’t have mine.” You must celebrate my needs as my rights, otherwise you are oppressing me. You must also celebrate my wants as my rights, otherwise you are hating me. Requiring me to serve others is just you trying to control me with guilt. I don’t do guilt. My adult spirituality is an eclectic weaving together of the best elements of a variety of religious traditions—none of which require anything of me, especially not sacrificial service! If you will be of this world and in it, you must conform to its virtues: work-pride, self-avarice, power-lust, gift-envy, success-gluttony, failure-wrath, and soul-sloth. Play with these worldly virtues or risk their opposing vices: ignored in modesty, disrespected for generosity, mocked for purity, taken for granted in kindness, ostracized for abstinence, laughed at for mercy shown, and hated for one’s holy industry.

If you will be great among the Lord’s disciples, you will serve. If you will be first among the apostles, you will be a slave to all.

The pain that Jesus endured on the cross did not and does not save us. The beatings by the Roman soldiers, the betrayal of his disciples, the political backstabbing wheeling-dealing of Pilate—all of these caused Jesus pain. This pain did not save us. Pain is not redemptive. Isaiah heard the Lord say, “If he gives his life as an offering for sin…the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him.” If he gives. James and John ask Jesus to be honored in his kingdom. Jesus says to his honor-seeking disciples: “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink…?” They say, “We can.” We can drink the cup that you, Lord, drink—the same cup that Jesus later prays will pass him by! For the Servant’s pain to be redemptive, for Jesus’ pain on the cross to be redemptive, it must be suffered, that is, “allowed.” It must be taken on with a will and directed to the benefit of others. To wallow in pain is to wallow in pain. Nothing more. To take up pain in the service of others, to designate pain as a sacrifice, to make it holy by giving it away for a holy end—that is suffering! And this suffering mocks the Devil. It scrubs the world clean. It rotates the unholy virtues of pride and greed and blesses them as humility and generosity.

Discomfort is eased. Suffering is avoided. Death is delayed. We will invent and re-invent human civilization after human civilization in order to ease our discomfort, to avoid our suffering, and to delay our deaths. And we will lift up and parade the secular virtues to justify our refusal to take on service for others. But is this what we as Christians are called to do? Are we called to avoid discomfort, suffering, and death? No. We are called to transform discomfort, suffering, and death; to make each into the good habit of being Christs for others. We are called to turn discomfort into the luxury of humility; to turn pain into the art of redemptive suffering; to turn death into a witness to everlasting Life!

Our Lord did not die on the cross so that we might be blue ribbon winners or gold medalists. He died on the cross to show us how to be the friends of God. How to be servants to one another. He gave his life as a ransom for many so that we will know how to give our lives as a ransom for many more.

What does your life stand for? What do you represent in the world? Whom do you serve? Here’s a question for you: will you die for me? For that guy behind you? For your next door neighbor? If you will give your life as an offering for sin, the will of the Lord will be accomplished through you. And because of your affliction you will see the light in fullness of day.

Will you be small in the kingdom of God by dying to pride and greed in the service of others? Or will you insist on being great among the Great of the World and in the end find yourself among the Great who proudly rule the smoldering trash heaps of Gehenna?

2 comments:

  1. Father:

    It is said that tears are a form of prayer. You just brought the tears of love and truth to my eyes. Thank you for this gift, Father.

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  2. Redkim,

    Wow! Goes to show you--I don't much like this homily. Pretty much on a regular basis I think my homilies utterly fail. I preach them b/c I figure that that failure is itself a kind of homily--the imperfections of trying to say Something About God. I'm always surprised when someone tells me that one of these "failures" touched them. Thanks be to God!

    Fr. Philip

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