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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=222


 

Proper 27 Year B (October 4, 2015)                               St James', Peace River

This morning's Bible readings amount to a series of linked reflections on sin and suffering. If you took any one of them by itself, it wouldn't say all that much, and in fact might be awkward and difficult to understand. But put them all together, and they remind us what the Bible often does: not lay out a specific concept or doctrine; but rather teach us what happens to your way of looking at the world when you start from faith, that is, a relationship of trust with God.

That's made very clear when we talk about sin and suffering, because we know that there are other world views out there that look at these concepts very differently. There is, for example, a secular or non-religious world view, that wouldn't necessarily use the word “sin” but still has the same concept. Sin, in this way of thinking, is making someone else suffer instead of you. You can lie, cheat or steal, use force to get your way, pollute without paying, and so on – those are all ways of lining your own nest, protecting yourself, while someone else suffers as a result.

Mostly, even in a secular world, we agree those behaviours are wrong, and so we pass laws to address them. If the cost of breaking the law, being found out and punished, exceeds the benefit of passing your suffering on to someone else – well then, you are more likely to behave the way you're supposed to, and keep your problems to yourself. To be fair, our society also makes efforts to alleviate people's suffering or at least spread it around more equitably, through institutions like charitable giving, univeral health care, and a tax system!

But one problem the secular world has never solved is how to make things come out fairly. With the best social institutions and legal system, there is still a huge imbalance between the prosperity and comfort of one group of people, and the misery, pain and poverty of another. Some of that imbalance is due to bad behaviour that the law can't control, but in the end which group you're in is largely the luck of the draw. This is where some people think the religious world view comes in. A caricature, or perhaps just a very simplified version, of the religious world view is that it evens up the imbalances. Those who game the system and get away with it, are due for some kind of spiritual punishment beyond this life; and those who suffer unjustly in this world, receive an eternal reward.

That makes sense as the way things ought to be, and it satisfies a kind of internal moral compass within most of us – it even resembles the basic version of Christian morality which many of us were brought up with, either implied by the attitudes of the people around us or taught to us explicitly. And there are many places in the Bible where it shows up – God punishing the sinners, but rescuing, relieving, and rewarding the sufferers. But I don't think we could say that this is the whole story of how the Bible looks at these things.

The book of Job reveals a whole new issue to deal with, asking where God is in undeserved suffering; and many of the psalms make the reverse point, asking God to explain why bad behaviour so often leads to apparent blessing. Other threads of the Bible invite us to question what we mean by separating out the deserving from the undeserving, anyway, when “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. And then, most poignantly, we are asked to consider the story of Jesus, and how it moves God out of the role of assigning merits and demerits, and instead shows him taking on both the sin and the suffering of the world, in order to do something much more profound about them.

So the Biblical world view on these issues is something much richer and more complex. Today's readings are a few snapshots along the way. We started with Job, and the bargain between God and the Adversary which we imagine must happen any time someone so obviously good and faithful is hit with disaster. It seems ironic and even cruel that God allows the people who are his best followers and most effective witnesses to be tested like this. It doesn't just happen in the book of Job – I've seen it happen in real life too. And yet I've also felt my thoughts run along the lines of saying, “If someone had to go through all of this, maybe it had to be (so-and-so), because anyone else's spirits would have been completely crushed.” That doesn't work to excuse God – as though he's paying you a compliment when he lets you be tested to the extreme – but maybe it flags for further thought whether we're asking the right questions when we try to understand situations like this. If suffering is a given in the world we live in, then why should good people be exempt from it? And is that the real reason we want to be thought of as “good people”, because it gives us a pass?

The letter to the Hebrews brings home that lesson by talking to us about Jesus. First, though, it holds up an unexpected vision of the world as a place that is supposed to be “in subjection” to human beings. More and more that seems to be true, though not in a good way! But the writer of the letter is asking us to revert back to the vision of creation in the book of Genesis, where human beings are created to be in charge of God's world, God's deputies, running it the way God means it to be run. So that implies another way of looking at sin and suffering: sin is our divergence, our choice not to operate the world according to God's plan. And suffering is what happens when it gets away from us, when the machine gets out of control or our supposedly better designs have unintended consequences.

The writer wryly observes, “As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to [humanity].” That's an understatement. “But we do see Jesus” - that's the saving grace. And the Jesus we see is someone who suffers the consequences of our messing up the world, right along with us, and so brings us back to the conviction that we are actually his family, brothers and sisters to him and one another, and therefore God's children and heirs, who still have a calling to set this world right.

The gospel reading began with what looks like an excursus on divorce and remarriage, but I think even that is to the point. The failure of a marriage is a significant example of God's plan versus human “hard-heartedness” (as Jesus calls it). Sometimes the fault there lies on one side, sometimes on the other, usually in some proportion on both; but the same can be said of the suffering it produces, and anyone who has been in or near a divorce knows that there is no necessary correlation between the fault and the suffering. Still, the existence of a provision for divorce in God's law, revealed through Moses, is itself evidence that God wants to deal with us not in a perfect world but in the actual situations that we're in. Yes, there is an ideal, but no, we're not there yet – and God is not just to be found when we get there; God is also here along the way, walking with us through experiences where there is no longer any right or just or ideal answer. Perhaps we need that in more ways than one – perhaps we have to learn to see God right here getting his hands dirty, before we will ever be ready to know God in heaven.

The last section of the gospel reading told the story of our baptistry window, one that I remember from my own Sunday School lessons – Jesus telling his disciples to let the children come to him. It's one of those moments when you can tell Jesus is just a little disappointed. Do you remember two weeks back, we heard about how Jesus settled his friends' argument over who was the boss disciple, by picking up a child and telling them, this is what it looks like to be the greatest? And yet here they are, so soon afterward, keeping children away from him – as though they weren't important enough to deserve the rabbi's attention, which in the culture of the time, would certainly have been how people thought. So Jesus has to drive the point home. “It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs... whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

I don't think we have to read too much into that. It's not that the child is perfect, and therefore ready for the kingdom. (Only your own child is ever perfect!) It's not even just that the child still has everything to learn, so it will be easier for them to find their way. I think it's really that the child – especially so in Jesus' culture – was completely at the mercy of others, utterly vulnerable and dependent. And that is what the kingdom of God is like. It is less about making the right moral choices, and more about being subject to the moral choices of others. That's how we come to know Jesus after all – as the one who allowed others to tell his story for him. That apparent weakness was the most powerful thing he had going for him. It forced people to see their choices as causing his suffering, rather than blaming God's choices for their own. And seeing things that way, changes us. Once we are conquered by the power of the powerless one on the cross – we start choosing to reflect his power by being, ourselves, like the little child; allowing others to tell our story instead of insisting on pride of authorship.

That's only the basic sketch of what a biblical world view on sin and suffering looks like. But even so, it makes some demands of us. It requires us to start asking some different questions. Where we are used to asking, “What did I to do deserve this? How can I make up for what I've done? How do I prove that they are in the wrong and I am in the right?”.... instead we have to start asking things like, “How can I be with others in their suffering? Where do we see Jesus sharing trials and hard experiences with us and with others? How does that change our perception of what God is up to in the world?” But ultimately, it gives us the assurance that we need to believe that God is with us in all the raw material of our lives; and the courage to live differently, as Jesus did, with lives open and vulnerable to the people around us, knowing that this how God's kingdom comes.