[It has been another of “those” weeks – too much to do and too little time. So I’m offering this homily from 2018 as a reminder of how some things change but many do not. Although the treatment of desperate refugees gathering at our southern border is now less draconian, the press for asylum is far from over. And now, over five and a half million people have died of the Covid-19 pandemic worldwide – the greatest number in the United States – over 700 thousand and still increasing. With the retaking of Afghanistan by the Taliban, another ethnic group must also be added to the victims of attempted “cleansing,” in this instance by the resurgent Islamic State, – the Hazaras. In today’s readings, the word of God concerns suffering.]
For those watching news reports this week, we have been greeted again by the heart-breaking spectacle of many thousands of poor people trying to make their way across thousands of difficult miles though Central America and Mexico to reach haven in the United States, the hoped-for Promised Land. After immense suffering, having been uprooted from their homeland because of oppression, violence, poverty, and even climate change, and then risking their lives in many ways, they are met at the border by armed guards, hostile militias, and even soldiers. Many are quickly returned to the squalor and danger of the counties from which they fled. Other face months if not years of ‘processing.’
It is a pattern found elsewhere, of course: in the Mediterranean where Africans risk everything, not least their lives, to find a land of hope and promise in the wealthy northern hemisphere. It is found in Asia, and recently but hardly only in Myanmar, where the Rohingya people have been oppressed, killed, burnt out of their villages, violated, and driven from their homeland only to find bleak refuge in Bangladesh… if they are lucky. In Iraq, it was the Yazidis. Before that, it was the people of South Sudan and East Timor. The list is very long.
The fact is that in this life, there is no escape from suffering and the thought that we could somehow eliminate it from the human condition is an illusion. In Ingmar Bergman’s great film ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’ (later made into the wonderful if less thought-provoking musical “A Little Night Music”), the elderly doyenne Mrs. Armfeldt tells her daughter, “One can never protect a single human being from any kind of suffering. That is what makes one so tremendously weary.” But we can alleviate it and hopefully end it. That’s the point.
Once again in today’s readings, we are reminded that to follow Jesus involves a willingness if not an actual commitment to endure suffering. But these readings do not see suffering the way we do, as something to be avoided at all cost or simply wished away. Jesus himself healed people because he was deeply moved by their suffering. He saw the end of their suffering as a sign that the Kingdom of God was breaking in to the world. And wherever he went, he healed. But Jesus reminded his closest disciples, so obsessed with privilege and position, that they really hadn’t a clue about what it all meant.
Jesus simply asks them: can you suffer with me? “We can,” they say. “And you will,” Jesus promises. The moment passes as Jesus turns the conversation to the motive of ministry. But the real sticking point here is suffering. Why would Jesus ask them if they could suffer? The answer is found in the first and second reading.
First, the prophet Isaiah tells us that in God’s words, “Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear away.” Through his suffering. And then in the Letter to the Hebrews, the ancient Christian author reminds us that, “we see Jesus… crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons and daughters to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering” (Heb 2:9-10).
Through suffering. Suffering is the key, not only to what we should be praying for, and how, but also to the way we relate to one another, through our ministry. For at the end of the gospel story Jesus tells the disciples, now disgusted with the ambition of James and John, “…whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be the slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10: 42-45).
To serve by giving his life as ‘ransom’ — the word used here (‘lutron’) means the price paid to gain someone’s freedom. And the word for service here is ‘diakonia,’ the ordinary word for ministry. Christian ministry and suffering are inescapably connected.
The divine irony of the cross is that the only way to end suffering is by accepting it and thus defeating it. Not because suffering is a good thing, which it isn’t, but because that’s the price for saving the world. It cost Jesus his life. And it might even cost you yours. [I can’t help thinking here of the doctors, nurses, police, and emergency workers who have succumbed to Covid-19 trying to save others.]
It always costs to free people from suffering. And the price is also suffering. Every true doctor, and nurse, fire-fighter, police officer, first-responder, or soldier learns that one way or another. Each puts her or his life on the line in order to save people.
What Jesus is telling us, then, what Isaiah and the author of Hebrews are telling us, what God is telling us, is that the more we try to avoid suffering, the farther we get from our goal. To follow Jesus we must confront suffering and strive to end it. Ultimately, it is God alone who will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more [Rev. 21:3-4]. But for now, there is need for mercy, for service, for ministry, entering into the suffering of others and by sharing to lighten it and hopefully end it. And that is the true glory, the glory of the cross of Christ.