Sunday, August 31, 2014

Suffering: 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

            Jesus had some harsh words for Peter this morning: “Get behind me Satan!” 
            These words are even more striking when we remember that, just before our Gospel today came Peter’s finest hour.  Think back to last week’s Gospel.  Jesus and his disciples were in Caesarea Philippi and the Lord asked, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter’s reply: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus then declared Peter blessed, gave him the keys of the kingdom of heaven and said, “…I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…”
            Yet a few moments later—a few verses in the Bible—Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan!”?
            Jesus specified why he was disappointed with Peter: “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”  Peter tried to hinder Jesus’ mission, a mission that entailed suffering and death.
            St. Paul wrote to the Romans: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…”  Our minds must be renewed when it comes to suffering because we must be witnesses in a world which suffers so much.
            This morning I would simply like to share some thoughts about suffering.
            First, it stinks!  While it is easy to talk or preach about, when suffering actually happens, be it a physical illness or pain, loss of a loved one, or psychological cross, it is horrible.  It stinks.  Suffering itself is not good.  God does not directly cause it, though in His mysterious providence he allows it.
            A metaphor to explain this is in athletics.  We have all heard coaches or players speak about how adversity made victory all the sweeter.  Athletes train, practice and push their bodies to limit, all to achieve victory. 
            It seems to me that suffering is a product of love in a fallen world.  For instance, if we don’t love someone, we aren’t hurt when they are sick or when they die.  There are thousands, if not millions, of people around the world who will die today, yet our lives go on unconcerned.  Yet when the one who dies is a grandparent, child, spouse or friend the pain is almost unbearable.  We cannot suffer unless we have first loved.
            Suffering also puts us on our knees.  Unfortunately, such challenges are the only way many people come to prayer.  I know that when I get a cold or the flu it puts me in prayer immediately.  Yet when I am healthy and feel strong, at times I don’t even think to ask God for physical health.
            We should offer our suffering up in prayer.  Here a word is in order about what true prayer is.  Often we think of a caricature of prayer—piously kneeling in Church telling God what we think He wants to hear.  Granted, this is one form of good prayer, but not the only one.  Consider Jeremiah’s cry to the Lord: “You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped…”  He follows this up by basically saying, “I never want to speak about you again!”  We may ask, “Is this in the Bible?!”
            Yes.  The prophets and Psalms are full of prayers which include tears, anger, confusion and depression.  If you are angry after a tragedy, tell God!  If your heart is broken cry out to God!  If you feel like you can’t take another step, let Him know!  He already knows what you are experiencing, and true prayer is giving God exactly that.
            God did not send his son to eliminate suffering, but to be present with us in whatever we face.  Having died an excruciating death that included physical, emotional and psychological pain, Jesus—more than anyone else—can relate to our own.  He walks with us through good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.  He beckons us to take up our cross and follow him.
            This week, may we suffer well, whether this includes small inconveniences or devastating tragedies.  May we fall to our knees in honest and heartfelt prayer.  And, please God, may we experience victory after suffering both now and forever in heaven.

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