Suffering, Serving Jesus, preached by Winton Boyd on March 12, 2017

This is the second in our Lenten Series on the Gospel of Mark

Mark 8:31

Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection

Then Jesus began to teach them that the Human One must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed and after three days rise again.

Mark 9:30-32

Jesus Again Foretells His Death and Resurrection

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching the disciples, saying to them, “The Human One is to be betrayed into human hands and will be killed by them, and after three days the Human One will rise.” But they did not understand what Jesus was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Mark 10:32-34

A Third Time Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection

They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.   He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem and the Human One will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and condemned to death, and will be handed over to the Gentiles, and the Human One will be mocked and spit upon, flogged and killed, and after three days will rise.”


This is our second week in the gospel of Mark. A few chapters in, and already Jesus is predicting his painful death. As we have discussed in home groups, this is a gospel of movement. For example, the word ‘immediately’ is used 97 times in the NRSV throughout both testaments. 27 of those occurrences are in Mark. ¼ of the whole Bible. It is a gospel without birth story, no childhood stories, and a temptation in the desert story that is one verse long. But there is suffering and death. By comparison, the words suffer or suffering do not occur in John’s gospel at all.

According to early church tradition, Mark was written in Rome in the 50’s or early 60’s. Mark’s writing is closely associated with the ministry Peter, and is thought to have been occasioned by the persecutions of the Roman church in the period cad. 64–67. Many believe that Mark was writing to help his readers explore this suffering in the context of Jesus’ life and ministry.

In fact, many believe Mark’s image of Jesus is designed not to portray a mighty King, but a suffering servant; modeled after the prophet Isaiah’s words in chapter 53. That chapter includes these words about the servant Messiah to come.

He was hated and rejected; his life was filled with sorrow and terrible suffering.

He was painfully abused, but he did not complain.

He was condemned to death without a fair trial.

His life was taken away

He wasn’t dishonest or violent, but he was buried in a tomb of cruel and rich people.

As Mark lays out the story of Jesus, the deeper purpose around the power and necessity of suffering emerge rather quickly. In the midst of this, however, there is resistance and misunderstanding. For example,

  • After the first prediction (chapter 8), Peter rebukes Jesus.
  • After the second prediction (chapter 9), the disciples don’t know what he means and even worse, begin to argue about who’s the greatest.
  • After the third prediction (chapter 10), James and John ask for special privileges, to which Jesus replies – “you better be ready to suffer and die because that is the path of a true servant.”

To further highlight his belief that suffering is integral to the path of Jesus and those who follow him, Mark’s gospel shifts after this third prediction to spend the rest of the book actively leading to his death. As we will explore later in this season, even resurrection in Mark takes a back seat to the importance of suffering.

While not new, this idea of a suffering Jesus has been portrayed differently throughout Christian history. Think for a minute about the difference between a cross and a crucifix – cross with the broken and suffering body of Jesus.

The traditions from which the UCC emerged mostly have empty crosses – signifying the power of the resurrection and the promise of life after death. Jesus does not remain on the cross, this tradition suggests, but lives in the hearts and minds of his followers. But many traditions, including the Roman Catholic tradition, take another approach.

In fact, years ago, when we were putting out bids to local artists to design a new cross for this sanctuary, I talked with my brother in law who had recently sculpted the new crucifix in the Cathedral of the Angels in Los Angeles. He got very excited and shared various ideas – all of which were crucifixes, not crosses. I gently reminded this dear relative, who grew up Jewish, that I appreciated his ideas but I probably needed a proposal that was a cross, not a crucifixJ

Truth be told, however, I had been taken in by his process of experimentation and discovery as he crafted an amazing crucifix for the first Cathedral built in over 400 years.

The Cathedral asked that the crucifix be of human scale in order that it could be approachable and accessible to worshipers, especially when they kiss the feet of Jesus.

 

Simon purposely incorporated the brutality of the crucifixion and death of Jesus while trying to show his serenity as he simultaneously embraced death for the good of humankind.

Simon later wrote that before designing the crucifix (he) read the book, A Doctor on Calvary, by Dr. Pierre Barbet, a French surgeon in the early 20th century who spent fifteen years researching exactly what happened to Christ during the crucifixion.

“It was so hard to read because crucifixion is so brutal. It was impossible for me not to really feel the suffering,” to really understand “that I could embrace everything that was hard in my life, everything that had ever been hard in my life.”  http://www.olacathedral.org/cathedral/art/crucifix.html

As I have shared in other sermons, Tammy and I had the chance to attend the consecration service for that Cathedral. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced. As the four-hour service came to an end, the group we were with (including Simon and Randy and several friends) wandered to other parts of the church, ending up in a choir loft near a massive and impressive organ.

As we looked out across the sanctuary, we realized that in our socializing we had missed something phenomenal taking place right before our eyes. Immediately after the service a line formed the length of the sanctuary as people stood waiting to touch and kiss the feet of Jesus. The line snaked down the center aisle and around the inside of the Cathedral. They lined up to pray, to touch the suffering Jesus, to kiss the bronze feet, to offer their hearts to God. They were connecting with the suffering Jesus in a way I was less accustomed to.

 

By the time we came back a couple of days later for another service to honor the artists, so many people had come in devotion and prayer that the gold patina on Jesus’ feet was being transformed.

The design of the crucifix was intended to speak to Latino Catholic spirituality – as they comprised the single largest ethnic group of the diocese at the time. To my outside eye, it seemed apparent that the mostly invisible Latino community of the Los Angeles saw in the crucified Jesus someone who understood their pain, their life’s uncertainty, their abuse and neglect. Even before the recent xenophobic and nativist resurgence in our country, immigrants from the south – documented and undocumented, naturalized and natural born citizens – have often lived a second-class life in the fields and kitchens and factories of Southern California.

Their invisibility and suffering creates what Singer Songwriter Tracy Chapmen called ‘the subcity.’

People say it doesn’t exist – ‘Cause no one would like to admit

That there is a city underground – Where people live everyday

Off the waste and decay – Off the discards of their fellow man

Here in subcity life is hard

We can’t receive any government relief

Won’t you please, please give the President my honest regards

For disregarding me      

(Tracy Chapman, Crossroads, 1989)

I don’t want to appropriate their faith for my life. But I do ask what they might be teaching us? Like so many other Christians around the world, their resurrection faith does not skip over the crucifixion. Theirs does not shy away from the pain of Jesus’ death, in part because they can’t hide from the suffering in their own world. This is not the Jesus of manifest destiny. This is not the Jesus who walks the earth offering spiritual platitudes but who never eats, sleeps or argues with his friends.

This is a faith rooted in a Jesus who knows the pain; but who through the pain (and death) found new life and resurrection.

It is this Jesus that seems to be at the center of our Lenten Gospel of Mark.

A book that portrays Jesus as a man of action and suffering.

As a servant rooted not in glorious or set apart leadership, but in suffering with and among the people.

Signifying a God who also is not distant, but right here with us in our pain.

As Richard Rohr wrote, “while resurrection is where (this all) leads, there is one caveat, and it’s a big one: transformation and “crucifixion” must intervene between life (small l) and Life (Capital L). Some form of loss, metamorphosis, or transformation always precedes any rejuvenation. We see this throughout the entire physical and biological universe. Nothing remains the same.  This is where we all fumble, falter, and fight. So someone needs to personally lead the way, model the path, and say this is a good and “necessary suffering.” (Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (Jossey-Bass: 2013), 88.)

Without this model, we will not trust this counterintuitive path; counter intuitive because we do not like pain, but maybe even more so because of where it places God.

The Holy One is less the protector against suffering and more the companion and strength in the midst of suffering. This focus reflects a faith that doesn’t so much presume God is in control of all things; but rather present in all pain.

It reflects a faith that is less focused on ‘why me? Why this suffering in my life?’ and more ‘I am with you.’ And ‘nothing can separate you from my love…’

If we think about our own lives, we see this dynamic in how we feel supported by others in times of stress or pain. What we need is not a naïve optimist or a pie in the sky idealist – we need someone we believe is at least trying to understand and acknowledge our pain. Whether we are in grief, suffering mental anguish, in physical pain or walking in a spiritual desert – we long to be heard. Indeed we long for a spiritual companion who sees our situation for what it is.

Mark’s gospel, as well as many Christian traditions run counter to our deep American resistance to seeing suffering as valuable, filled with potential, and simply part of the human experience. Mark’s gospel and his spirituality challenge the deeply rooted theology among many Christians that God’s role is to bless our lives with goodness, protect us from pain, and reward our faith with riches.

Embracing the suffering in Jesus’ life as part of his gift to us will constantly be challenged in this culture; so the shift to understand more fully his counter intuitive path has real consequences for how we live in the world around us.

  • Faith in a suffering God understands service not as seeking one’s own gain, but relishing the gain of others; asking not how can I be the greatest, but seeing wisdom, divinity and insight within even the most humble and downtrodden of people.
  • Faith in a suffering God responds to the suffering of others not with simple platitudes that mean little and keep us distant from another’s pain; but is a faith that walks toward the pain as an act of presence, seeking to remind them they are not alone.
  • Faith in a suffering God realizes that the suffering of others contributes to our suffering, even in cultural situations that seek to deny, ignore or minimize our suffering.

Faith in a suffering God looks at pain directly and sees in it the seeds of new life. Valarie Kaur, a American Sikh woman whose grandfather immigrated from India, spoke recently at the National Moral Revival Poor People’s Campaign Watch Night Service.

Standing on the stage with a rabbi, a black Pentecostal pastor and an all black choir – she named the fears, the pain, the horrors and the oppression so many people of color feel at this time in our country. Without turning away from the pain she’s felt and her family has felt, she asked the crowd, “What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if (we are) not dead but …still waiting to be born? What if (our) story … is one long labor?

What if all the mothers who came before us, who survived genocide and occupation, slavery and Jim Crow, racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia, political oppression and sexual assault, are standing behind us now, whispering in our ear: You are brave. What if this is our Great transition before we birth a new future?” 

Let us not minimize either the suffering or the power suffering has to transform and expand our ability to love. Let us not minimize our personal, family or community suffering, but let us also claim and name the presence of a compassionate, serving God right by our side.