Rev. Kristin Philipson, Luke 24:1-12
A couple of weekends ago I got a text from a friend, it was Saturday afternoon. “I know it’s short notice,” she wrote, “but do you want to come to a concert tonight? The composer is our friend.” My husband and I didn’t have any plans so I texted her back, “Sure! Why not!” “Great,” she wrote, “the composer has cancer and he’s written a kind of opera about it.” “Excellent!” I texted back, beginning to feel a little nervous about what we had gotten ourselves into. I know how this is going to make me sound, but I wasn’t all that excited about spending my Saturday night at an opera about cancer. I went online to purchase our tickets. “There are 639 seats available,” it said on the website. The composer had rented out the Trinity St. Paul’s Centre and here it was now just a few hours before the show. “Oh my gosh,” I said to my husband, “no wonder they invited us.” No one, it seemed, wanted to hear this story. Over dinner our friends gave us some background. This friend of theirs had studied composition in University but had never made a career of it, and then a couple of years ago he’d received this diagnosis and it had given him the impetus to try to write again, to realize a dream. This was going to be a hard story to hear. I’m embarrassed to report what I said next, whispered to my husband as we walked up the steps to the concert hall: “Well, at least we’re getting out of the house, and we got this chance to have dinner with our friends.”
It’s easy to forget, when the trumpet blasts and the daffodils blaze, and the choir sings triumphant, that for most of his life, Jesus suffered. It’s easy to forget when Jesus is depicted right there, victorious and enormous, shining through the stained glass that while he was living there was not one person with power or privilege or persuasive authority who wanted to hear his story. Remember the inn keeper, who dismissed him before he was even born; that inn keeper who looked at his parents, his mother heavy with him, her eyes frantic with finding refuge; that inn keeper who looked at his parents and said: “There is no room for you here” – your kind can stay with the animals (Lk 2:7). This is hard to hear. Remember when Jesus stood up to speak for the first time how people dismissed him, “isn’t this the carpenter?” they said (Lk 4:22). Let me introduce you to my friend, Philip says to Nathaniel, this is “Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Joseph. ‘Nazareth!’” Nathaniel exclaims, “‘Can anything good come from there?’” (Jn 1:45-46). I know Jesus is famous now, but for most of his life people were skeptical of him; no one wanted to hear what he had to say. Suffering is an uncomfortable subject.
“We sing of Jesus,” it says in the United Church of Canada’s Song of Faith, “a Jew, born to a woman in poverty, in a time of social upheaval and political oppression.” How well do you think one does as a carpenter to peasant farmers and fishermen? “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus said, “because [God] has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. [God] has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk 4:18-19). The desperate and poor in his village and the surrounding countryside came to see him, but no one else wanted to listen. “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be filled,” he said, “[b]ut woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” (Lk 6: 21, 24). “We have found this man subverting our nation,” the local authorities said when they brought him before the Roman Governor; “he opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king” (Lk 23:2). Because of his background and his poverty, Jesus didn’t get a fair hearing and was sentenced by the Roman authorities to die a terrifying and painful death and – why am I bothering to bring all of this up right now? Who wants to think about suffering? If I tried to turn Jesus’ suffering into a concert, I’m sure there would be 639 free seats available.
Haven’t we gathered to tell the Easter story and to proclaim its power for our lives? Who wants to talk about suffering when there is so much to celebrate; the women go to the tomb, but Jesus’ body isn’t there, and two men in dazzling clothes tell them that Jesus is risen. Let’s hear about new life and possibility and potential. Let’s hear about surprise and joy and over-turning expectations. Let’s hear about creativity and healing and transformation. Honestly, who wants to hear about suffering? I certainly didn’t, but when I read the Easter story, I couldn’t seem to get away from the fact that suffering plays a key part in it. The Easter moment is God’s reaction to the injustice Jesus experienced and the intense suffering this caused. Yes, the Easter story is a story about these fantastic and expansive ideals – the new, the possible, the potential – but before it can be any of these, it is, first and foremost, a story about justice.
Nature makes new life look easy, natural. The kind of regeneration and renewal and rebirth we see in the spring is so straightforward. After the equinox, the earth tilts on its axis making our northern hemisphere more and more exposed to the sun. Plant life gradually receives more and more of what it needs to coax itself out of dormancy – light, nutrients, precipitation – and, all of a sudden, new life is everywhere. Crocuses and snowdrops and blue bells exhale themselves up and out from the earth, grass greens, tree buds push through branches to release pent-up energy. But when it comes to humans, new life seems to require something more, some kind of intervention and acknowledgement. Ask any woman who has eased new life into the world: that labour progresses when suffering is witnessed and heard. It makes a difference when someone doesn’t turn away from our suffering, when they come face to face with us, when they encourage us to keep breathing. You could say that for human beings, new life is only possible once the reality of suffering is acknowledged. Justice can be born only when injustice is fully seen and heard and noticed.
I watched shocked and sad alongside the rest of the world as Notre-Dame cathedral caught fire in Paris last week and I was struck by how many different kinds of people took to the banks of the Seine to bear witness to the flames and their aftermath – nuns and middle-aged tourists, young backpackers, restaurant and shop owners, people who worked in the cathedral, people who lived nearby, native Parisians and people who lived an hour away by train, very religious people, and completely secular people. “They’re grieving a cultural artifact; medieval craftsmanship we can no longer replicate,” the experts said. “It’s the timber, they’re crying for all that old growth wood that held up the roof,” said others. “They’re mourning for the Catholic church,” said still others. Yes, all that affected me deeply, too, but that’s not why I pored over the photographs and listened to reports and interviews, turning to the BBC after exhausting the CBC and then to NPR. If I’d been in Paris I would have gone to the banks of the Seine and I bet you would have gone too. It’s true; sometimes I find suffering hard to hear, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t know what it feels like to be on fire, to burn. We know, each of us in our own way, what it feels like to suffer from circumstances over which we have no control and crises which we cannot contain on our own. The burning cathedral resonated around the world because we all know what it is to crumble, for our roofs to come caving in, and to be crying out for someone – anyone – to notice and come to our rescue. We know what it is to cry out to be heard and noticed; to pray that someone is listening. New life will come to Notre-Dame – the cathedral will be rebuilt – but only because the flames of suffering were first put out. We cannot celebrate new life until we acknowledge the presence and the reality of suffering.
It is the testimony of the Easter story that God hears the cry of those who suffer. It is the testimony of this faith and the Church that God listens and God acknowledges and God hears and God raises the suffering to new life. When no one would acknowledge Jesus’ suffering – not the inn keeper, not his disciples, not the leaders – God does not turn away. God raises Jesus, even from the dead. The resurrection is God’s “yes,” to Jesus and a “yes,” to us, and a “yes,” to the sacredness and holy promise and potential of life, and the resurrection is God’s unequivocal, “no,” to every indignity a human being can suffer – a no to suffering of poverty, a no to the suffering of precariousness, a no to suffering of disease, a no to the suffering of abuse and oppression, a no to the suffering of death: “they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord” (Isa 65:25). This is the proclamation of the Easter story. God is deeply concerned with the suffering and the helpless and the outcast. There is no experience of suffering – even suffering unto death – from which God does not and will not and cannot make all things new. That God hears the cry of those who suffer is the Church’s most fundamental proclamation.
Well, now. That is something. But tell me, you might be thinking, how exactly does God intervene, how exactly does God make God’s kingdom come here on earth, as it is in heaven? What did God say to Moses in the book of Exodus – the story that our brothers and sisters in the Jewish faith are commemorating this very weekend – “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering…. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh…” (Ex 3:7). What did God speak through Mordecai to Esther, when she becomes aware of the suffering intended for the Jewish people at the hands of the King of Babylon: “who knows but that you [Esther] have come to royal position for such a time as this;” to face and acknowledge suffering (Esther 4:14). God cannot abide by injustice, and God works in us and others by the Spirit to move the world, to move words, like those of the poet, Isaiah, from prophecy to reality: “the former things shall not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating…no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress” (Isa 65: 17, 19).
To witness to suffering is to be a powerful and transformative force. To be a witness to suffering is to unlock creative potential and possibility. It was the women who followed Jesus who wouldn’t turn away. The other disciples couldn’t bring themselves to go to the tomb – couldn’t bring themselves to look at the marks on Jesus’ hands and feet – but early on Sunday morning the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away and steeled themselves as they stooped inside, prepared to encounter Jesus’ body, but Jesus’ body was not there. Two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. “Why do you look for the living among the dead,” they said, “He is not here; he has risen!”
So, I gave suffering an audience, steeled myself, like the women who’d gone to the tomb expecting to see the end. But I didn’t see the end, none of us did, it turned out the whole main floor at the Trinity St. Paul’s Centre was packed and people milled about the foyer; we couldn’t believe what we’d seen and heard – the beginning of something. The music was complex and profound, inspired and provocative. New life was already taking shape, and suffering healed, transformed because it had an audience. And I have to believe that it is sign of something because the Church’s testimony is also my own: Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Amen.