Pentecost 20A (Reformation Series – Theology of the Cross)
“Finding God in the Last Place You’d Look”
October 22, 2017
Exodus 33:12-33; Psalm 99; 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:2; Mark 15:33-39
I knew to expect, at some point in my children’s young life, that phase where everything you say is followed by, “Why?” I didn’t expect it so soon as age 2. “Where’s daddy?” At work. “Why?” So he can make money and help people. “Why?” Because he wants to be a contributing member of society. “Why?” Uuuugghhh… I’m already exhausted!
And yet, I’m grateful, because every day my toddler teaches me something about human nature. With these exchanges, she teaches me that this question, “Why?” is so deeply ingrained and pressing that it nags us just as soon as we start to develop reason and language. Of course as adults, the question most meaningfully makes its appearance in times of suffering: “Why did she die so young?” “Why has he suffered so long?” “Why would God let this happen?” It’s a question I often get asked as a pastor, usually asked with sad, questioning, sometimes even angry or desperate eyes. Unfortunately, I’m no more privy to the mind of God than anyone else, and so my answer is usually a pathetic, “I don’t know.”
But really – how can we know? If we knew the mind of God, would that really be God anymore? We are desperate to understand how life works, why God acts the way God does, why things happen the way they do, but the fact is: as soon as you claim to understand God’s ways, you have eaten of the tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden, and put yourself on the same plain as God.
Martin Luther describes this temptation as a “theology of glory.” A theology of glory tries to rationalize God – for example, by saying in the face of untimely death, “God wanted another angel in heaven.” A theology of glory says that we can determine who will go to heaven and who won’t, based on their good or evil deeds. A theology of glory assumes that we can do something to earn our own salvation – for example, that we need to choose Jesus, and make him our personal Lord and Savior, or that we need to do good so that God will love and accept us, or so that we will be saved.
All of these ways of trying to understand God and faith are so tempting – I think all of us here have fallen into at least one of them at some point. They are tempting because they make sense to us, and we like to understand things. That is why churches that preach the prosperity gospel – the understanding that God gives good things to those who are true believers – are so popular: that way of thinking makes sense for our culture. If you do well, you gain much. Problems can be reasoned through. Everything can be understood if you are smart and rational enough.
Luther pushed against this, instead describing what he called a “theology of the cross.” A theology of the cross points to a God who acts in a way that doesn’t make a lick of sense to our human minds: a God who would choose to reveal his love and character most profoundly through a beaten, humiliated, broken man on a cross. And so, Luther says, if we want to see God, that is the place we must look: we must look for God in suffering, because if there is one concrete thing we know about God, it is that in suffering, God is made known to us.
And suffering? Well that’s something we know something about, isn’t it? Just look around the world. In Puerto Rico, 95% are still without power and people are drinking toxic water. California looks like a war zone, and people’s lives have been consumed by fire. Victims of mass shootings – those who witnessed it and survived, and those whose dear family and friends did not survive – are still weeping. Threats of nuclear war. The largest refugee crisis since World War II. Millions of women speaking up about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. And this is not to mention our individual journeys – this week alone I have sat with and heard from victims of mental illness, victims of cancer and other illnesses, people desperate to leave the suffering of this world – and these are only the things I have heard about.
But here’s the good news about the theology of the cross: we can’t understand why any of these things happen, but we can know, because ours is a God who is made known in suffering, that God is in each of these places. God does not cause suffering – freewill and human sin and brokenness do that – but God goes to where there is suffering. It’s hard to believe, hard to wrap our heads and our hearts around, but it is the promise of the cross: that God will be present in the last place a rational person would ever look for God: in the midst of suffering, oppression, violence, and even death.
I like to think of it this way: There has been quite a lot of hubbub about what is happening in the NFL with players kneeling during the National Anthem. I read a piece about this written by a political conservative who is also a Christian that hit the nail on the head. He said, basically, that whether or not you agree with this gesture as a way to draw attention to police brutality against people of color (which was its original intent), the Christ-like way to respond is not to dismiss it, disparage it, or call people names. What Christ would do is kneel beside those expressing their pain, and say, “Talk to me about why you are kneeling.” He would go into the suffering, not condemn it. Not necessarily agree with the expression of it, but acknowledge it, and be with people in it.
I love this image of Jesus coming to us when we are on our knees – in prayer, in exhaustion, in despair – and kneeling beside us. As I have thought about the ways I have suffered in my life, it was never helpful to me to think things like, “Someone else has it worse than you, Johanna, so get over it.” I know that is a common coping mechanism for people, but for me, that only disregarded the real pain I was feeling. What is helpful to me is that image of Jesus kneeling beside me and saying, “I know, Johanna. It hurts. It isn’t fair. I have felt your pain, and I know how much it hurts. Let’s have a good cry together, and then, if you’re feeling up to it, I’ll make you a cup of tea.”
A theology of glory tries to make human sense of everything. That’s what Paul was talking about in his letter to the Corinthians. But reason doesn’t heal emotional pain. A theology of the cross puts Jesus down in the dark hole with you, where he acknowledges your pain, and holds your hand, and then shows you that there is life after death.
I read a story this week about a seminary professor who was trying to explain basic Christian theology to a bunch of first year seminary students, who seemed less than interested in what he was saying. Exasperated, he finally just drew THIS [hold up large, downward arrow] on the board and said, “This is Christian theology in a nutshell. If you understand this, you know all you need to know,” and he walked out of the room, leaving the students in a tizzy. The next day he explained further, now to a captive audience. The main gist of Christian theology, he said, is this: that God comes down. Every time. God comes down to us. God comes down to us, even and especially when we are suffering. God comes down to kneel beside us when we are broken and at the end of our rope, to feel our pain with us, then to offer his hand and draw us into God’s preferred future – a future of love, connection, and abundant life.
It doesn’t make a lick of sense that God, the Creator of the universe, would do such a thing. No one would think to look for God among the hurting – among the sick, the oppressed, the forgotten, among women whose bodies and spirits are broken by the abuse they have experienced, among bullied children in a school yard, among communities who can’t “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” because they never had boots to begin with. No God that makes sense would be found in those broken places. And yet, ours is. Ours is there, loving us, and beckoning us into a new and fuller life.
Let us pray… Suffering God, you went to great lengths to show us that you know our pain and feel it with us. Thank you. Thank you for coming down to us, down into our suffering, and loving us there, even as you draw us out and into new life. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Sprit. Amen.