Sunday, 28 June 2015

The Problem of Suffering

Readings for this Sunday

2 Sam 1:1,17-27
2 Cor 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

Sermon notes from Rev Margaret Fourie.

Our readings are all about suffering today, and our collect underlines this. How often haven’t we been able to call out with the Psalmist, “Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord..!”

Here in Hogsback, as I look around the congregation today, I am aware of the huge amount of suffering of various kinds represented here.

Some have experienced physical illness and ongoing pain. We have had how many diagnoses of cancer, followed by surgery, chemo, radiation and pain and illness. Some of the congregation have died of it. Others are living with the pain, and the daily limitations and weakness. And again and again, there is the question, “Why?” “Why doesn’t God answer our prayers?” We prayed for Rose and she got steadily worse until she died. We prayed for Ansie’s young friend and she is not getting any better. How long have we been praying for Rudi and Ollie?

Then there’s Parkinson’s. We prayed for our Dominee and he got worse and worse till he died; we have been praying for John Bowker, and his Parkinson’s has only got worse. We pray for Peter all the time, too, and see no real improvements.

Where is God when we need him and call out to him?

Some of us have arthritis, or bone problems and manage daily with various ways of coping with the pain. Some of us suffer from migraines and nothing seems to help, to say nothing of the ulcers, digestive problems and reflux. Some have to carry TNT for the angina attacks.

But it’s not all physical. What about loss? Betrayal? Bereavement? Alienation? Family distress? Mental anguish?

Some of us suffer from the kind of depression that needs life-long medication and is always just one wobble away from paralysing us again, from sending us into suicidal hopelessness.

Some of us suffer agonies of uncertainty and doubt in our faith journey, or are deep into the Dark night of the Soul.

Oh dear!

So let’s look at the bible. Our gospel reading today told the stories of the suffering of the woman who had tried everything she could find, but her illness went on, making her a social pariah, and even preventing her from attending worship services; and Jairus’s family, with his little daughter dying. We hate it when children die – it seems such an offence to life, Mind you, these two stories have happy endings.

What was their secret? Well, they turned to Jesus, didn’t they? And there it was. Their faith solved the problem. So may be I can say, Go and do likewise.

But I won’t.

It’s too easy and facile to say that we should look at these stories and learn from them how to have all our problems of suffering go away. It is simply not true. We know that our Lord does not always heal, and sometimes suffering just goes on and on, and in the lives of people who are not obviously deserving of it at all.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Back to the bible. Let’s look at Job. He was an extremely good man, and the most dreadful things happened to him. He was angry with God, and with his friends who kept defending God. He could make no sense of his suffering, and this is exactly where so many of us are. It just doesn’t make sense. We do everything we are told to do – anoint with oil, pray with faith, lay hands on people...and nothing happens.

It seems as if either God is all-loving and is weak, or God is all-powerful and does not care.

And so Job goes on demanding an explanation of God. But read chapter 38 and God’s answer – Where were you when I formed the earth? Can you call up the wind or the snow, or even stop a storm on a lake, like Jesus? In other words, “WHAT MAKES YOU THINK YOU COULD POSSIBLY UNDER-STAND MY ANSWER? SUFFERING IS A MYSTERY!

That makes sense to me. There are things which we can never understand – great mysteries. God himself is the greatest Mystery – three in one, having no beginning and no end, all the things we know of him – our minds can never comprehend God.

Evil, for another example. We truly do not understand evil and why it is in the world. We can apply our logic to it and come up with some great suggestions, but we will find flaws in that logic, and will never arrive at a good, satisfactory answer. We can observe it, study it, describe it, but not understand it. It will still catch us out.

Falling in love is a mystery. Scientists suggest chemistry; Plato suggests a soul-mate type of other half; esoteric theorists may speak of cosmic connections. Whatever it is, we know when we experience it, and it happens without our permission, usually.

Mysteries don’t have solutions Problems can be solved, though. So where evil is a Mystery, resisting it is merely a problem that can be solved.

Suffering is a mystery, but coping with it is a problem that can be solved.

Job is not a nice book to read, and one could be forgiven for thinking that God is being really quite nasty, if one had no idea at all about God’s nature. We, however, do have a really good idea of what God is like. Jesus said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father”, and he taught us to know God, not only through his teachings but through his life, death and resurrection.

We know that God is love, and that this love is expressed in every experience we have of him. So we must then read the bible with that knowledge – that is the filter of meaning we apply.

If you got a note that said, “I will be at your house at 3 o’clock”, you may feel excited, or nervous, or curious, depending on who sent it. If it was from someone you were in love with, it would be the best news. If it was from your enemy, it might be serious, If from an acquaintance, interesting. We interpret what is written through the filter of what we know about the person and their relation to us.

So we read God’s reply to Job through the filter of knowing his tremendous love for each of us. His reply is not sarcastic or critical. T is a loving explanation of the difference between Creator and creature. Our minds simply cannot manage all truth, even all knowledge.

Some mysteries we just have to accept in blind faith, and we can, because we know who is in charge, and that his plans for us are for good and not for evil.

What we can solve, then, with his help, is how to cope with the existence of suffering. Asking why won’t help, because we cannot have an answer. Asking HOW is far more sensible, because there he can help us. And we can know that the suffering will not be wasted.

St Paul, who knew personally about bad things happening t good people, wrote, “For we know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purposes.”

I offer you that today. No answers, no trite, comfortable words. Just the uncomfortable truth that, as Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation, But do not despair. I have overcome the world.” And, “Look, I will be with you right to the end of time.”

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