Revised Common Lectionary Readings: Exodus 3:1-15 AND Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, Jeremiah 15:15-21 AND Psalm 26:1-8, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

The topic is “suffering.” Some people seem to have easy answers. Questions are as much a part of my faith as answers. If God is good, why is there evil? The question has been discussed and debated for millennia with, in my opinion, no fully satisfactory answer. Rabbi Harold Kushner offered a popular contribution to the discussion with his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. That, however, is not the way people usually ask the question. “Why,” they want to know, “do bad things happen to good people?”, especially when I’m the good person and the bad things are happening to me. “Why me?” How long, O Lord, will I have to endure?

In this week’s lectionary readings, Jeremiah cries out, “O Lord, you know; remember me and visit me, and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors. In your forbearance do not take me away; know that on your account I suffer insult . . . I did not sit in the company of merrymakers, nor did I rejoice; under the weight of your hand I sat alone, for you had filled me with indignation. Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” (Jeremiah 15:15, 17-18) The Psalmist comes to us with a similar attitude. “Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering . . . I do not sit with the worthless, nor do I consort with hypocrites; I hate the company of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked. I wash my hands in innocence.” (Psalm 26:1, 4-6)

In the Gospel lesson from Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples that “he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering,” facing even death. That this good person whom they had come to love might have to suffer offended the very fabric of the universe. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you,” says Peter. (Matthew 16:21-22) Jesus rebukes him (vs. 23) because, you see, suffering is somehow at the very heart of the Christian understanding of reality. People and social reality are changed by people who are willing to put their lives on the line for what is right. A cross, after all, is a central symbol of our faith.

In this passage, Jesus not only points ahead to his own cross; he tells us that crosses are ours to bear as well. “If any of you want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (vss. 24-25)

So, why suffering? Why are there crosses in our live? The answers we sometimes give, or have been given, can come close to sounding like, “Grin and bear it.” Someone may say, “God sent this to you as a test,” or “God sent this to you because you are strong enough to bear it.” I don’t intend to say those things, but it is true that suffering is a part of every life, and some people are able to learn from it, grow amid it.

You may have heard it said, “Into every life some rain must fall.” Someone on the internet asked where that saying came from. The answer given: a song by Queen. Oh, the joys of not having a long perspective on life. There was another song in 1940 by The Ink Spots---Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall. Although they got the wording right, the saying became popularized in a Longfellow poem, “The Rainy Day,” from 1842. “My life is cold, and dark, and drear,” Longfellow writes, “It rains, and the wind is never weary.” He concludes with these words: “Be still, sad heart! and cease repining; Behind the clouds is the sun still shining; Thy fate is the common fate of all, Into each life some rain must fall, Some days must be dark and dreary.”

The sentiment goes back even further. In Matthew 5:45, Jesus says of God, “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Of course in this verse the rain is seen as a good thing, but the larger point is that God does not make a distinction between the righteous and the unrighteous in the sending of sunshine and rain. Suffering is not a punishment sent by God, nor is absence of suffering a reward that can be expected for good behavior.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus certainly does not promise a life with no challenges to be faced. The title for today’s reflections comes from a song written by Billy Joe Royal in 1967, “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden,” best known for the version sung by Lynn Anderson. “I beg your pardon I never promised you a rose garden. Along with the sunshine, there's gotta be a little rain sometimes.” The context of Jesus’ words about the sun and rain falling equally on the righteous and the unrighteous is his instruction to love our enemies. (Matthew 5:44)

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness is a challenging and inspiring record of a week of conversation when Nobel Peace Prize Laureates His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu got together at the Dalai Lama’s home to celebrate his 80th birthday in 2015. They have survived more than fifty years of exile and the soul-crushing violence of oppression. Despite their hardships—or, as they would say, because of them—they are two of the most joyful people on the planet. They looked back on their long lives to answer a single burning question: How do we find joy in the face of life's inevitable suffering? Their answers keep circling back to turning outward and helping bring healing to the suffering of others rather than brooding on your own. It sounds simplistic, but it also sounds a lot like loving neighbor and enemies as we love ourselves.

The Dalai Lama and the Archbishop call us also to find meaning in whatever comes our way---not to see it as judgment or reward, not to see it a sent by God, but to learn and grow in the midst of it. The key is in how we respond to suffering when it comes our way.
The Book of Joy is filled with stories of suffering from the struggle for freedom in South Africa and the Chinese oppression of the Tibetans. In one of those stories, the Dalai Lama tells of 130 Tibetans who were sent to a Chinese gulag where they faced unspeakable torture. They were there for 18 years in an icy climate with no shoes, always hungry. Twenty of them survived. One told the Dalai Lama about the dangers he faced. “I thought, of course,” says the Dalai, “he was talking about dangers to his life.” What the man said next with totally unexpected. “He told me he was in danger of losing . . . his compassion for his Chinese guards.” It sounds like loving one’s enemies. It sounds like Matthew 16:26 from this week’s Gospel lesson. “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”
Tucked away in the middle of the reading from Romans are these words, “Be patient in suffering.” (Romans 12:12) They are part of a longer list of concrete instructions for filling life with meaning. “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another . . . Extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute your; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly . . . Do not repay evil for evil . . . If it is possible as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (vss. 9-10, 13-18) Sounds to me a lot like loving one’s enemies and entering into the suffering of those around us.
The final answer is that there is no answer. There is simply the living of a life in which we share our joys and sorrows, learning and growing in the midst of them, in the company of the Spirit of Love and Compassion who offers us the hope and possibility of peace and justice---if we take up our crosses and follow.

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