Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Suffering: From Kvetching to Compassion

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday in Lent includes Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

Poor Moses. If we think that unifying Episcopalians is harder than herding cats, Moses has his tales to tell, and we hear one today. He’s trying to lead into freedom a multitude of Hebrew slaves, refugees from Egypt, and anxiety among them is running high. They complain about his so-called freedom that requires them to put up with lots of hardships, like having no water in the desert. They quarrel among themselves. They kvetch. I gather that’s not a Hebrew word, but a good Yiddish word that means to be a grumbler, moaner, sniveller, squawker, whiner, bellyacher, complainer, crybaby. Its root in high German means to squeeze, to pressure, and today we hear them putting the squeeze on Moses.

They’re just about ready to stone Moses, as if that would have been a good idea—Moses was their global positioning device, and without him they would have been really lost. Moses agonizes with God: “What am I to do with these people?” And God promises him that at Mount Horeb they will find a rock. Moses must strike that rock, and water will flow.

It is an ancient story from the rabbis that not only did those refugees find water there at that rock, but—you must put on your imaginations for this—that rock followed the Hebrew people throughout their long years of being homeless in the wilderness.

How do you imagine that? Everybody takes ten steps forward… they turn around, and the folks in the back row shout out, “Yep, it moved!” This sounds like the stuff of cartoons. Every time they break camp and resettle a few miles north, that rock is with them.

These rabbis loved to tell that tale to make their point that this is just like God, isn’t it? God with us, Emmanuel, whose amazing grace at just the right moment is so etched in memory that it follows—or leads—God’s people forever.

And sure enough, in one of his letters St. Paul dusts off that great old tale and reinterprets it by saying, “And that rock was Christ!”

That’s all he says about it… doesn’t explain himself…figures that if the elder rabbis could appeal to people’s imagination, so can he.

As we hear today’s Gospel story about a woman who comes to a famous well in Samaria, we won’t be too surprised to find Jesus there. Emmanuel is where the water is. “The water that I will give will become in you a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Water saves the lives of refugees in the desert; water becomes the sacramental sign of salvation in Jesus Christ.

But let’s see if that rock is still following us. It is. What offers more solid footing than rock? Until it moves in its most massive way, tectonic plates deep in the earth sliding, falling, rising, squeezing the surface, grotesquely distorting whatever man has built on that surface, as happened in Japan two weeks ago. Seven hundred times more powerful than the big earthquake in Haiti, hundreds of aftershocks repeating the message that rock is not the most solid footing, after all.

In his Letter to the Romans that Jim read today, St. Paul says that we stand in the love that God has poured into our lives in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. Emmanuel, God-with-us in Jesus, the Savior with the wet feet, is the solid ground of our being. To walk in his love is to have peace, says Paul, not because we wish it were so but because God has made it so; not because we did anything to qualify for this change that puts us on firmer footing than rock. In fact, in Paul’s version of the Good News, when God acted on our behalf it wasn’t at some moment when the human race was at its best, but exactly when we were at our weakest, so anxious in our suffering, so anxious and kvetching that we were, says Paul, enemies of God, opposed to God.

It was then that Jesus Christ laid his life down to make the way of the cross to be the way of new life. I think of his strategic selflessness when I hear about the nuclear reactor workers in Japan harrowing that hell, standing in that breach, entering those deadly places to get water cooling those overheated radioactive components. They risk their health, they dare to live and die in hope that what they do will save the lives of countless people, their people, their children, their communities.

Peter Abelard, twelfth-century French philosopher, argued with traditional atonement theory that saw Jesus’s death on the cross appeasing a wrathful God. Abelard insisted instead that the purpose of our gazing upon the crucified Christ is to be so moved by compassion that we will recognize the power of selfless love and choose to bravely give such love when it is asked of us.

If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving, why can’t he design the created order without human suffering? That’s a powerful question I’m hearing in the Foundations group. My hunch is that no answer will fully satisfy anyone asking this question.

Rabbi Harold Kushner tries. In his book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” he pulls apart the premises of that question. Freedom of will cannot exist if God knows all. The unbendable laws of nature that allow the created order to exist put the squeeze even on God. Not all-knowing, not all-powerful, nonetheless God is all-loving, all-encompassing, all-compassionate.

Let’s hear a different way of approaching the question. Suffering is indispensable to the human quest for wisdom. We must suffer into truth, suffer into mature human ripeness, suffer into blessing. That’s the thinking of Aeschylus, Greek playwright in the fifth century before the common era. He wrote plays for the festival of Dionysus, god of transformation, putting suffering on stage to cause the audience to feel empathy, to strengthen the bonds of Athenian citizenship and leave no one alone in his or her sorrow or suffering. He resolves one of his plays by appeasing the terrifying Furies, gods of wrath, giving them their own shrine and renaming them the Eumenides, the compassionate ones—as much as to say that citizens in a civilized society must make a place for suffering and darkness in their own minds and hearts, transforming primitive passions into a force for compassion.

“We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” That’s Paul again.

His words could make us furious, if we hear him being dismissive and unfeeling. But I hear him building the case for compassion. Hope does not disappoint because hope is what keeps the doors of our hearts and the windows of our minds open, open to recognize pain and promise, need and opportunity. Hope is the spark of energy that makes me rise from the throne of me-first and give that place to someone else who needs my attention, my care.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all…

That’s Emily Dickinson commenting on hope not disappointing us. But if hope sings the tune without the words, there is the task of compassion: finding the words and the actions born of feeling, empathy, love, the strong ground on which we stand, the only firm ground on which we walk.

(Karen Armstrong’s book “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life”, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010, was very helpful to me in the preparation of this sermon.)